Science

Trump Just Appointed a Science Adviser. Good!

The president can’t seem to focus on a single point of view. That means it’s possible to change his mind.

Kelvin Droegemeier in Oklahoma City in 2017.
Kelvin Droegemeier in Oklahoma City in 2017.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

On Wednesday morning, 559 days into his presidency, Donald Trump’s administration announced his nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy—a post better known as the “president’s science adviser.” Science leaders expressed relief at the decision, if not delight: Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma, appears to be a well-respected mainstream member of the research community; one who supports greater science funding and reportedly adheres to standard views on climate change. But may be premature to call this “a huge win for science and the earth,” as one scientist described it to the New York Times this week. The novelist Rivka Galchen once pegged Droegemeier’s name as just the sort that would seem “fancifully invented”—a weather guy called Kelvin, really? Perhaps it’s just as fanciful to think that he’ll be able to coax our chief executive toward better, more enlightened science policies.

After all, it was only 469 days ago that Slate’s Brian Palmer warned us that this whole process was a sham. “Trump would have the same problem with a science adviser that I would have with a butler,” he said. “What are you supposed to do with him?” Our conspiratorial, White House quack—who has suggested that vaccines cause autism, GMOs “create issues in the brain” and climate change is “a total, and very expensive, hoax”—would be unadvisable, in Palmer’s view. Interviews with a dozen scientists and science policy experts kept bringing Palmer to the same conclusion: There isn’t any way for Trump to fill the role because “no sane, credible scientist worth having in the position would take it.”

Why, then, did Trump select an allegedly “sane, credible scientist” like Droegemeier for this job—and why did Droegemeier accept?

First things first: Let’s clear up some important facts about the nominee. Droegemeier was neither named for the Victorian physicist Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, nor for the eponymous Kelvin scale of absolute temperature. Rather, according to a 1999 profile in the Oklahoman, Droegemeier’s first name was “chosen randomly” by his parents. That same profile also offers up some charming details on our nation’s next science adviser’s personality, hinting that he’s a prime specimen of Nerdosaurus Rex. He grew up by his own admission as a “fat and allergic” kid who couldn’t play sports; in college he was ridiculed as a “neat freak” who liked to catalogue the school’s radar tapes for fun; and later on, he made a hobby of collecting vintage Hewlett-Packard calculators.

His political views are less clear, but they may be reasonably inferred. Droegemeier seems to be a very religious Christian with deep ties to his evangelical church. His Twitter feed displays a mix of science updates, news about the Sooners, and invocations of the glory of Christ.
“Faith is not about a bad person becoming good; it’s about a dead person becoming alive. He is risen!!” reads one characteristic message. Many tweets refer to the Rev. Craig Groeschel, the pastor of a vast, technologically oriented megachurch based in Edmond, Oklahoma, who has gained some fame for delivering services to avatars in Second Life and pioneering the use of web-enabled confessions of one’s sins. Notably, Groeschel is a signatory of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which affirmed the need for government action to address the dangers of human-induced climate change.

Given Droegemeier’s ties to evangelicals, his appointment to a role in science leadership could be a(nother) sop to Trump’s base. One can find a more direct explanation, though, in the appointee’s expertise in tracking storms. Coverage this week has noted that Droegemeier, if confirmed, would be the first nonphysicist handed this task in many decades. Indeed, going back to the 1940s more than three-fourths of the nation’s leading science advisers have been physicists or engineers. That might have made sense throughout the Cold War, when atomic weapons and the space program were the dominant concerns. But our presidents’ preoccupation with those fields has continued ever since.

Why might Trump have broken with this trend? Let’s not overthink the matter: Droegemeier must have seemed the most useful choice because he understands the weather. In Trump’s first year in office, he was asked to oversee responses to three hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria— that resulted in many, many deaths and several hundred billion dollars’ worth in damages. These also led to unrelenting criticism of his empathy and leadership. Now imagine that you’re someone with little interest in the long view, and a tendency to fixate on your reputation. This year’s hurricane season has just begun: Wouldn’t it be great for you to have a White House meteorologist on call in the months to come? And wouldn’t it be even better if that guy had helped to found something called the “Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms”?

It could also be that Trump means to put a sane, credible scientist in charge of OSTP because when it comes to science policy, he simply doesn’t have much appetite for controversy. I know that sounds absurd: We’ve been told a thousand times that Trump is anti-science, even “the most anti-science president ever.” In 2017, about 100,000 people made an unprecedented march on Washington “for science,” demanding more evidence-based policy and (perversely) greater use of peer review.

It’s also true that Trump’s administration has taken certain “War on Science”–type positions. His former EPA administrator, in particular, took multiple, decisive steps to hinder scientific input into regulations. At the same time, Trump hasn’t yet installed chief scientists for the State and Agriculture departments. And of course he’s made some suspect choices of his own, like the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, or to throw his weight behind patients’ “right to try” experimental medicines.

Yet the horrifying, anti-science quack we feared last year—the author of those vaccine-truther tweets, for example—hasn’t really made his presence felt. Even just the first few weeks of his term suggested that Trump didn’t really want to pick a fight with mainstream science institutions. In those early days in office, his administration fell into a pattern of floating batshit-crazy notions—like asking Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair a commission on vaccine safety—and then rejecting them after scientists and others made a stink.

This tendency has not abated since. The Department of Justice dissolved an important Obama-era effort to review methods in forensic science, then brought it back to life (in a somewhat lesser form) a few months later. Trump appointed a climate-change skeptic, Jim Bridenstine, to be the head of NASA, but his appointee later said he’d had a change of heart: “I have no reason to doubt the science,” he told senators in May. (Bridenstine has also shown more tempered views on LGBT issues.) Rick Perry got the nod from Trump to run the Department of Energy, despite Perry’s prior claims that the agency should be eliminated. He’s gone on to treat the role with some degree of dignity and gravitas, according to most accounts. (That said, like others in the Trump administration, Perry has also cozied up to industry.) And Trump’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been forceful and emotional on the importance of vaccines.

Even Trump’s approach to naming a science adviser has fallen into this routine. In 2017, he was said to be considering three candidates—each one a figure from the fringe who has staked out a radical, contrarian position on climate change. Mainstream scientists were outraged by this set of options. and the president held off. (With this week’s nomination of Droegemeier, that volte-face has been reaffirmed.)

As Roger Pielke pointed out for the Guardian in March, Trump seems not so much opposed to science as indifferent to it. His administration proposed some hefty cuts to R&D; congressional Republicans went in the opposite direction and put in place a large increase. In the end, says Pielke, we’ve seen a fairly standard re-alignment of the nation’s research spending, given the party that’s in power: less money for environmental research, for example, and more for fossil fuel extraction. Trump has taken regrettable steps when it comes to climate change, but otherwise, he either doesn’t care that much about science policy or he’s decided that perverting it systematically for political ends isn’t worth the trouble.

If that’s the context that Kelvin Droegemeier would be stepping into, what’s the argument for turning down the job? At worst, he could be used as expert cover for a shameful set of science policies, as happened to George W. Bush’s adviser in the early 2000s. But that assumes that this administration would ever feel a need for cover, or a sense of shame. More likely, in the many scientific areas where the president doesn’t have an interest, Droegemeier would have the chance to operate on his own, and complete the vital yeoman’s work of coordinating research efforts and priorities across the government. (Trump does seem somewhat more invested in technology, at least insofar as it projects American strength and domination of our Chinese rivals.)

More importantly, Droegemeier may succeed not through what he does but what he helps prevent. Science policy scholar David Hart lists “trying to kill bad ideas” as one of the role’s few core responsibilities. One of Richard Nixon’s science advisers, Edward David, recalled this as being very difficult, when he tried to urge the boss away from declaring war on cancer: “I’m reminded of Lord Keynes’ statement to the effect that it’s not difficult to bamboozle a president,” he said, “but it’s very difficult to de-bamboozle him.”

If Trump has any virtue whatsoever when it comes to science policy, it may be that he’s too disjointed to adhere to dogma. Trump has already shown a tendency to bend in all directions on scientific matters. To choose just on example: The same president who has so often tweeted out his fear of vaccination spent 40 minutes on the phone with Bill Gates, and then—in Gates’ telling—grew so fired up about the notion of a universal flu vaccine that he put the head of the Food and Drug Administration on speakerphone to ask about it. (Gates also says that Trump offered him the job of science adviser during the course of that conversation.)

In other words, our president may be like a buoy tossed by each and every current of bamboozlement that drifts in his direction. That’s consistent with his alleged habit, often cited in the media, of repeating whatever point of view has most recently been whispered in his ear. This could be the strongest argument of all for Droegemeier to accept the job. He may not end up getting any access to the president at all; but if he does, he could have better odds of de-bamboozling the president than any White House scientist ever has before. If it’s true that Trump’s as flimsy with his feelings as he is with facts, then we should be glad to have a well-respected meteorologist somewhere near the Oval Office. At some point, if we’re lucky, he might get the chance to puff his cheeks and blow the country in the right direction.