Although President Donald Trump says he’s ready to delve into the mysteries of space, he still has to make key appointments at NASA and other agencies dealing with science and technology policy.
And some of the picks he’s already made pose challenges. For example, his nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency has in the past filed lawsuits against the EPA. And his nominee for energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once sought to have that Cabinet department eliminated (even though he couldn’t remember that during a debate).
Here’s a quick rundown on the questions surrounding seven agencies that deal with science and technology policy:
Trump hasn’t yet named an administrator, and America’s space agency is currently in the custody of NASA’s highest-ranking civil servant, Robert Lightfoot.
Today, Lightfoot sent NASA employees a message praising the work of outgoing administrator Charlie Bolden and his deputy, Dava Newman. He said atmospheric scientist Erik Noble, who was a data strategist for the Trump campaign, would serve as White House senior adviser at NASA, and transition team member Greg Autry would be White House liaison.
Among the oft-mentioned prospects for administrator are U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., who’s a big proponent of space commercialization; and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who worked on the Constellation back-to-the-moon program during the G.W. Bush administration. Trump and his aides are widely expected to de-emphasize Earth science and a planned mission to a near-Earth asteroid, while giving a boost to lunar missions as well as studies of Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter.
For what it’s worth, The Washington Post is reporting that Trump and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have discussed Mars and the options for public-private partnerships on space missions.
Trump’s nominee to head EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has been involved in at least a dozen lawsuits challenging the agency’s environmental rules – including proposed limits on industrial carbon dioxide emissions aimed at addressing climate change. During a Senate hearing this week, he provided cautious answers to questions about the issue.
“Science tells us the climate is changing, and human activity in some matter impacts that change,” Pruitt said. “The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”
Trump has said he believes the concern about climate change is a “hoax,” and the president’s newly minted White House website says he’s “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”
The scientific consensus about carbon emissions and climate change is largely settled, but Pruitt is correct that the political debate continues nevertheless.
During a 2012 GOP debate with other presidential candidates, Perry intended to list the Energy Department among the agencies he’d eliminate – but he had a hard time remembering it was on the list. Now he’s been nominated to lead the department, and this week he told senators, “I regret recommending its elimination.”
The department is in charge of energy research, ranging from fossil fuels, to renewable sources such as solar and wind, to fusion. It’s also responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal, cleaning up nuclear sites (such as Hanford) and managing a network of national labs (including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory).
This week The Hill reported that the Trump transition team is considering a plan to roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research, and eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as well as the Office of Fossil Energy.
National Science Foundation
NSF’s current director, France Cordova, is less than three years into a six-year term. She’s likely to remain in charge of one of the federal government’s most active backers of civilian research.
In past years, Republicans in Congress have taken aim at NSF’s funding of studies in social and behavioral sciences, as well as climate science. Cordova has been effective in pleading the case for giving the agency a freer hand as it develops its funding portfolio, but a new administration and new Congress may bring new challenges.
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Rep Tom Price, R-Ga., has been chosen to take over the Department of Health and Human Services and preside over the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act’s health-care system. But when it comes to health research, it’s more important to know who heads the National Institutes of Health.
This week, NIH said that director Francis Collins has been asked to stay on, at least for the time being. Either Trump is satisfied with the way Collins has been handling big projects such as the BRAIN Initiative and the National Cancer Moonshot, or he just needs more time to decide whom he wants in charge instead.
Federal Communication Commission
Today Politico reported that Trump will ask one of the FCC’s commissioners, Ajit Pai, to become its chairman. Pai, a Republican telecom law expert who was appointed to the FCC by Barack Obama, has been a strong critic of the Obama administration’s efforts to enforce net neutrality on internet service providers.
The Trump administration is expected to dismantle net neutrality requirements as part of an effort to deregulate the telecom industry. If that happens, internet providers like Comcast could charge content providers like Netflix a fee for high-bandwidth services to consumers – or block those services.
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, served as the White House point person on a wide range of science issues, including climate policy. Trump has not yet named a replacement for Holdren as the director of OSTP – and in fact, a member of Trump’s transition team has called for eliminating the office.
Rush Holt, a physicist and former New Jersey congressman who now serves as CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, today urged Trump to “promptly name a respected leader of the scientific community to serve as science adviser to the president.”
“It is imperative that President Trump – in keeping with U.S. presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 – appoint a science adviser to facilitate the greatest use of science into decision-making at the highest levels of government,” Holt said in a statement. “We hope the Trump administration will employ scientific evidence when considering policy options.”
Today the journal Nature pointed to two potential contenders for the post: Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, a critic of liberal academia; and Princeton physicist William Happer, a critic of mainstream climate science.
For more on the future of science policy, check AAAS’ special report, “First 100 Days.”