By pulling out of the US out of the Paris climate agreement, President Donald Trump made a decision that could reverberate across generations into the future.
It appears that Steve Bannon, White House counsel Don McGahn, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — advisers with nationalist ideology and fossil fuel industry allegiances — were the leading influences on his decision.
But if Trump wanted to turn to a scientific mind on staff, he couldn’t. That’s because he has virtually no one in his White House advising him on scientific issues.
The list of science vacancies in the Trump Administration is long. Trump has not appointed someone to run the White House Office of Science and Technology (a person who traditionally serves as the president’s chief science officer). OSTP is reportedly running on fumes. Foreign Policy recently reported that posts on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology — a group of civilian science and tech leaders who advise the president — have also gone unfilled, and are unlikely to be filled.
Both of these groups are meant to give the president an ear to leading scientific expertise. In the past, they’ve advised presidents on issues as diverse as biomedical research, cybersecurity, the emergence of infectious disease, nuclear policy, and, yes, climate science. (Not to mention, there are vacancies in many other science-related federal agencies: Trump has yet to appoint a new director of the CDC, for one. And you’ll recall he fired the surgeon general.)
There’s no one inside the White House advising Trump on science. And outside voices failed to get through to him, too. White House adviser Ivanka Trump called on industry leaders, like Apple’s Tim Cook, to try to convince the president to stay in the agreement. Elon Musk pleaded with him too. Their arguments fell on deaf ears.
And know: The impact of not having scientists close to the White House stretches further than the topic of climate change. On a recent press call, Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said there “have been very limited conversations” with regards to Trump decision-making on the federal budget and the scientific community. That budget document slashed billions away from medical research that saves lives and invigorates the economy (among other potentially devastating cuts to scientific research across the government).
Earlier in the year, it was reported that one of Trump’s top choices for his science adviser was Will Happer, a former Princeton physics professor who told ProPublica the science on global warming was “very, very shaky.” (That position is still unfilled.)
In February, I asked John Holdren, who held this job under Obama, if a science adviser whose opinions conflict with the scientific consensus on climate change is better than none at all. “Absolutely,” he told me. “Because somebody who knows about some domains of science and values science would still offer advice on those topics.”
But Trump is getting virtually no science advice.