Election 2016: Science Appointments in the Trump Administration

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Publication date: 
14 November 2016

Over the coming months, President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team will be selecting dozens of personnel for science-related leadership positions in the federal government. These choices and the administration’s broader approach to government could have significant effects on the federal science workforce and science policy. 

Note: Since the initial publication of this article, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has made significant changes to the composition of the transition teams. People mentioned in this article may no longer be formally involved in the transition effort. 

The outcome of the 2016 elections will have significant implications across every policy domain, and science is no exception. All eyes are now on President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team as they begin filling key policy positions within the White House and across the federal government. Upon taking office, Trump will have about 4,000 appointments to make, dozens of which are key to federal science policy.

Other key positions at departments and science agencies are not subject to presidential appointment, but are still integral to the operation of federal science programs and activities. Some of these positions may face elimination or attrition if, as the Washington Post reports, Trump and congressional Republicans target the federal civil service workforce for downsizing and reform. Trump has proposed decreasing the size of the federal workforce by implementing a hiring freeze and making it easier to fire government workers, and his proposal to reduce federal non-defense discretionary spending by one percent per year could lead to further personnel reductions.

The official transition website (https://www.greatagain.gov/) is now live, and Trump announced on Nov. 11 that Vice President-elect Mike Pence will lead the transition team.

Trump has not publicly announced an adviser to lead on science issues, nor is it clear whether there are any scientists within his orbit. As ScienceInsider notes, there was little interaction between the science community and the Trump campaign during the election season. For now, the role of science in the Trump administration is unclear.

However, the selection of a science advisor is not usually among the first orders of business of a presidential transition team. President Obama, for instance, announced his selection of John Holdren as his science adviser on Dec. 20, 2008, and his appointment of heads of the science agencies came months later. Announcements of other high-ranking positions impacting federal science, such as Secretaries of Energy, Defense, and Commerce, have traditionally come first.

The below sections list selected science-related positions which require Senate confirmation and provide additional information on transition efforts and implications for selected departments and agencies.

Selected science-related positions requiring Senate confirmation

Agency Selected Senate-Confirmed Positions
White House Office of Science & Technology Policy Director; Associate Director for Energy & Environment; Associate Director for National Security & International Affairs; Associate Director for Science; and Associate Director for Technology & Innovation
Energy Department Secretary; Deputy Secretary

Under Secretary for Science & Energy; Director of the Office of Science; Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy

Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy; Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy; Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management; and Assistant Secretary for Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability

Under Secretary for Nuclear Security; Principal Deputy Administrator for Nuclear Security; Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs; Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation
Defense Department Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics; Assistant Secretary for Research & Engineering; Director of Defense Research & Engineering; Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, & Biological Defense Programs; Navy Assistant Secretary for Research, Development, & Acquisition; Army Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics, & Technology; Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition
Health & Human Services Department Director of the National Institutes of Health; Commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration; Surgeon General
Commerce Department Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Assistant Secretary for Environmental Observation & Prediction; Director of the National Institute of Standards & Technology
Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Water & Science; Director of the U.S. Geological Survey
Agriculture Department Under Secretary for Research, Education, & Economics
State Department Assistant Secretary for Oceans & International Environmental & Scientific Affairs; U.S. Representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency
Homeland Security Department Under Secretary for Science & Technology
Transportation Department Assistant Secretary for Research & Technology
NASA Administrator; Deputy Administrator
National Science Foundation Director; Deputy Director
Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for Research & Development

Transition efforts at selected agencies

OSTP: Typically, the president’s science advisor serves as both the OSTP director and the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a title which confers the advisor with additional access to the president. Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former congressman, has urged Trump to swiftly select a science advisor, citing a recent report by former OSTP Director Neal Lane that argues it is important for the next president to make such an appointment at the outset of their administration.

OMB: Edwin Meese, who played a role in the Reagan transition team and rose to hold the position of Attorney General under President Reagan, is leading the federal budget transition for Trump. While Meese was a vocal critic of Trump during the campaign, he will now be helping to staff the President-elect’s White House Office of Management and Budget.

DOE: Michael McKenna, a political consultant who has lobbied for Dow Chemical Company, Southern Company, and Koch Industries, is leading the DOE transition team. [UPDATE: McKenna has since left the transition team. Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, is now leading the DOE transition.] The past three Secretaries of Energy have been scientists, but initial reports about potential Trump selections suggest he may instead appoint a business leader with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. During the campaign, Trump called for “complete energy independence,” reviving the declining coal industry, and using domestic energy sources. He has also said he is “very strongly in favor of nuclear energy.” 

NSF: The science grant-making agency has traditionally been given considerable political independence, and its director is appointed for a six-year term, although she or he still serves at the pleasure of the president. The current director, France Córdova, took office in 2014, so she could potentially stay on until 2020. Members of the National Science Board, NSF’s governing board, also serve for six-year terms. Eight of the current set of 23 members have terms expiring in 2018. These positions do not require Senate confirmation.

NASA: Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-PA), a past chair of the House Science Committee, and Mark Albrecht, who was a principal space advisor to President George H. W. Bush, have leadership roles in the NASA transition team, according to reporting by NASA Watch. Notably, Walker has proposed shifting funds away from NASA’s earth science research towards “deep space achievements” and potentially transferring certain earth science missions to NOAA. [UPDATE: It now appears that Walker will not be involved in the transition team, and Albrecht has been assigned to the DOD transition team.] During the campaign, Trump advocated for refocusing NASA’s mission on space exploration and referred to the U.S. space program as like that of a “third world nation.

DOD: The Defense Department transition is being led by Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general, and Mira Ricardel, a former Boeing vice president. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is currently orchestrating a broad set of innovation-oriented reforms at DOD called the Third Offset Strategy. Prior to the election, some observers were already wondering how the strategy will unfold in his absence. While Trump has been critical of U.S. military leadership, he has promised large increases in defense spending to “rebuild” the military. Defense R&D could benefit, although Trump has not expressed a specific interest in the subject.

NIH: Andrew Bremberg, a policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is heading up the transition for the Department of Health and Human Services. With respect to NIH, Trump has said, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.

EPA: Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and chair of the Cooler Heads Coalition that aims to dispel “myths of global warming,” is running the EPA transition team. Ebell is a major opponent of the mainstream scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and a vocal critic of many environmental regulations. Trump has said he intends to dismantle a number of the Obama Administration’s environmental policies, including the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants. Trump has also repeatedly promised to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change accord, which the Obama Administration formally approved in September.


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