Trump Lags Predecessors in Naming Science Agency Leaders

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Publication date: 
23 August 2017

To date, President Trump has retained the directors of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, but has not appointed a science advisor or nominated heads for most of the federal science agencies. This pace puts him behind his predecessors, who had completed most of these appointments by the summers of their first years in office.

By late summer during their first years in office, all presidents in recent history had completed most of their appointments to leadership positions in the federal government’s science agencies. President Trump, however, has been making his appointments at a slower pace across the board than his predecessors, leaving most science agencies with career employees still in charge. Although these acting officials have the experience to perform their agencies’ essential administrative duties, they generally do not undertake major changes in policy.

This bulletin reviews the history of selected key appointments dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s administration to illustrate the degree to which the Trump administration is in and out of step with precedent.


This chart displays the length of time that new presidents have taken to announce their intent to nominate their selections for key science agency positions.

This chart shows the length of time that new presidents have taken to announce their intent to nominate their selections for key science agency positions. The position titles listed are the current titles. For the details underlying this chart, please see the table at the end of this bulletin. Click to enlarge.

New presidents typically quick to name science advisors

Since Congress established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1976, new presidents have tended to move quickly to appoint a director who has always doubled as the president’s science advisor. Until now, the latest a new president announced his selection for OSTP director was President George W. Bush’s announcement of John Marburger on June 25, 2001. Trump interviewed two candidates in the early days of his administration, but has so far made no selection.

The White House has also usually called on the advice of a body of independent experts in science and technology. Reagan’s science advisor, Jay Keyworth, named a White House Science Council that reported to him in February 1982. In January 1990, President George H. W. Bush established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which reports directly to the president. President Bill Clinton did not choose to retain the PCAST apparatus until November 1993, following a governance study called the National Performance Review, and he did not announce PCAST’s new membership until August 1994.

After Clinton, establishing a PCAST became a more routine part of a new administration’s work. George W. Bush named PCAST co-chair Floyd Kvamme in March 2001, three months before naming Marburger as his science advisor. Bush waited until that December, though, to announce the full PCAST membership. President Barack Obama named PCAST co-chairs Harold Varmus and Eric Lander in December 2008, alongside his science advisor John Holdren. The full membership followed in April 2009. There has so far been no word on when, or even whether, Trump intends to establish a PCAST for his administration.

Trump keeping NIH and NSF leaders in place

One of the few decisions that the Trump administration has made in science leadership is to retain Francis Collins, an Obama appointee, as NIH director.

Although it is now unusual for NIH directors to serve multiple presidents, until the 1980s it was common. Donald Fredrickson, who was originally appointed by President Gerald Ford, stayed through the Carter and Reagan transitions before resigning six months into Reagan’s first term. He later recalled he remained long enough to demonstrate NIH’s independence. The next two directors, James Wyngaarden and Bernadine Healy, were both surprised to learn that the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations expected to make their own appointments.

The next two directors, Varmus and Elias Zerhouni, stepped down prior to the end of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, leaving the position open for the next president to fill. Only Clinton and Obama, though, have treated the position as part of the ordinary slate of initial appointments, naming their nominees, Varmus and Collins, during the summers of their first years. NIH was actually without an appointed director for over two years — during a period when its budget was doubling — before Bush announced his selection of Zerhouni in March 2002.

Unlike the NIH director, the National Science Foundation director, who serves a six-year term, has remained essentially unaffected by turnover at the White House. In recent decades, only Walter Massey has stepped down at the beginning of a new administration, and he did so in April 1993 because he accepted a senior position with the University of California system. Trump has followed the general tradition, leaving in place France Córdova, whom Obama nominated in 2013. 

In the past several years, there have been proposals to set a similar, 10-year term for NASA’s administrator. The objective is to provide continuity at the agency such as that provided by Daniel Goldin, who was appointed by George H. W. Bush and stepped down early in George W. Bush’s first term. However, the idea has not gained traction and, Goldin excepted, the NASA administrator has remained a more traditional political appointment.

Past political appointments mostly made by summer

As with the NIH director, a number of presidentially appointed positions at science agencies only began to turn over with new presidential administrations in recent decades. These include the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Other positions, such as the administrators of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the heads of R&D at the Energy and Defense Departments, have always been subject to turnover with a new administration.

Although all these positions are now understood to be “political” appointments, they have generally not been considered political in the sense that the appointees are political partisans. Rather, the expectation is that they will work with White House staff to advance a set of priorities for policy and management. And, with some exceptions, new presidents have exercised their prerogative to make these appointments, and have done so quickly.

George H. W. Bush was somewhat unusual in that he took over from a president from the same party. Thus, he retained a number of President Reagan’s science-related appointees for some months before naming his own. He kept Dallas Peck, Reagan’s USGS director, throughout his presidency. However, Bush was also unusual in that he left the NIH without an appointed director for over two years at the beginning of his term, and he left the DOE Office of Energy Research (what is now the Office of Science) without one for over a year after Reagan appointee Robert Hunter, Jr. resigned in October 1989.*

New presidents have occasionally chosen to leave in place appointments made by presidents of the opposing party. Clinton retained Goldin as NASA administrator, George W. Bush retained Charles Groat as USGS director, and now Trump has retained Collins as NIH director. Sometimes, though, incumbents’ hopes to stay on have been dashed. William Happer was dismissed as director of the Office of Energy Research after clashing with Vice President Al Gore over the issue of ozone depletion. USGS Director Mark Myers hoped to stay on under Obama, but Obama chose to appoint his own director, Marcia McNutt, instead.

Trump reverts to non-scientist leadership at DOE

Separate from the question of the pace of Trump's appointments is the issue of whether he is appointing individuals with sufficient scientific expertise to agency leadership positions. In particular, Trump appears to be reversing a trend in recent decades that raised the place of scientists within DOE.

Traditionally, the director of the Office of Energy Research was the highest scientific position at DOE. However, MIT physicist and energy policy expert Ernest Moniz held the higher position of under secretary of energy from 1997 to 2001. Then, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a new position of under secretary for science, which has always been held by scientists until Trump’s appointment of Paul Dabbar this year. Dabbar, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, has an undergraduate degree in marine engineering but has spent most of his career in energy sector finance.

Throughout the history of DOE, the energy secretary has traditionally come from a political rather than scientific background. In 2004, George W. Bush broke somewhat with that tradition in appointing Samuel Bodman, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering but worked in finance and served as deputy secretary at the Treasury and Commerce Departments before moving to DOE. In 2009, Obama appointed Stanford University physicist Steven Chu energy secretary, and then appointed Moniz to the position in 2013. Trump’s selection of former Texas Governor Rick Perry has returned the position to its political roots.

One of Trump's other recent selections, Sam Clovis as under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics — otherwise known as the Department of Agriculture's chief scientist — has drawn severe criticism in large part because Clovis does not have a scientific background. Clovis has also come under fire for his rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and for homophobic remarks he made as a talk radio show host. He has not yet had his Senate confirmation hearing.

Some science appointments could come soon

Although Trump has to date made few new appointments to science leadership positions in government, there have been suggestions that some could be on the horizon. Most notably, reports recently emerged that Trump has selected Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to serve as NASA administrator and that an announcement will come in September.** There have also been rumors about other positions, such as that AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers will be selected as NOAA administrator.

Please consult FYI's Federal Science Leadership Tracker to keep up to date with appointments and the confirmation process.


*Update: Originally, this paragraph indicated that the DOE Office of Energy Research was without a director at the beginning of Bush's term.

**Update: NASA announced on Sept. 1 that Trump has indeed chosen Bridenstine as his nominee for NASA administrator.


White House OSTP Director
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Obama John Holdren 12/20/2008 03/19/2009
Bush John Marburger 06/25/2001 10/23/2001
Clinton Neal Lane 02/13/1998 07/31/1998
Clinton John Gibbons 12/24/1992 01/28/1993
Bush Sr. David Allan Bromley 04/21/1989 08/3/1989
Reagan William Graham 06/03/1986 10/1/1986
Reagan George Keyworth 05/19/1981 07/24/1981

DOE Office of Science Director (2000 - Present)

DOE Office of Energy Research Director (1977 - 1999)

Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Obama Cherry Murray 08/05/2015 12/10/2015
Obama Marc Kastner 11/14/2013 N/A
Obama William Brinkman 04/17/2009 06/19/2009
Bush Raymond Orbach 12/11/2001 03/04/2002
Clinton Mildred Dresselhaus ? 07/26/2000
Clinton Martha Krebs 07/15/1993 11/11/1993
Bush Sr. William Happer, Jr. ? 08/02/1991
Reagan Robert Hunter, Jr. 06/23/1987 08/11/1988
Reagan Alvin Trivelpiece 06/09/1981 07/27/1981
NSF Director
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Obama France Córdova 07/31/2013 03/12/2014
Obama Subra Suresh 06/03/2010 09/29/2010
Bush Arden Bement, Jr. 09/15/2004 11/21/2004
Clinton Rita Colwell 02/13/1998 05/22/1998
Neal Lane 07/13/1993 10/07/1993
Bush Sr. Walter Massey 09/14/1990 02/21/1991
Reagan Erich Bloch 06/06/1984 08/06/1984
Reagan Edward Knapp 11/15/1982 04/15/1983
NIH Director
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Obama Francis Collins 07/08/2009 08/07/2009
Bush Elias Zerhouni 03/26/2002 05/02/2002
Clinton Harold Varmus 08/03/1993 11/20/1993
Bush Sr. Bernadine Healy 01/11/1991 03/21/1991
Reagan James Wyngaarden 02/19/1982 04/27/1982
NASA Administrator
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Trump Jim Bridenstine 09/01/2017  
Obama Charles Bolden 05/23/2009 07/15/2009
Bush Michael Griffin 03/11/2005 04/13/2005
Bush Sean O'Keefe 11/15/2001 12/20/2001
Bush Sr. Dan Goldin 03/12/1992 03/31/1992
Bush Sr. Richard Truly 04/12/1989 06/23/1989
Reagan James Fletcher 03/06/1986 05/06/1986
Reagan James Beggs 04/23/1981 06/26/1981

DOD Assistant Secretary for Research & Engineering (2011 - Present)

DOD Director of Research & Engineering (1986 - 2011)

DOD Under Secretary for Research & Engineering (1977 - 1986)

Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Trump Michael Griffin 10/27/2017  
Obama Stephen Welby 03/18/2015 12/14/2015
Obama Zachary Lemnios 05/12/2009 06/19/2009
Bush John Young 07/28/2005 10/28/2005
Bush Ronald Sega 06/07/2001 08/03/2001
Clinton Hans Mark 05/04/1998 06/09/1998
Clinton Anita Jones 03/31/1993 05/28/1993
Bush Sr. Victor Reis 10/02/1991 11/27/1991
Bush Sr. Charles Herzfeld 01/24/1990 03/09/1990
Reagan Robert Duncan 10/02/1987 12/17/1987
Reagan Donald Hicks 06/24/1985 07/31/1985
Reagan Richard DeLauer 03/03/1981 05/06/1981
NOAA Administrator
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Trump Barry Myers 10/11/2017  
Obama Kathryn Sullivan 08/01/2013 03/06/2014
Obama Jane Lubchenco 12/20/2008 03/19/2009
Bush Conrad Lautenbacher 09/19/2001 11/30/2001
Clinton D. James Baker 02/12/1993 05/28/1993
Bush Sr. John Knauss 07/19/1989 08/03/1989
Reagan William Evans 02/11/1988 03/31/1988
Reagan Anthony Calio 07/17/1985 10/04/1985
Reagan John Byrne 04/17/1981 06/10/1981
NIST Director
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Trump Walter Copan 9/12/2017 10/5/2017
Obama Willie May 07/24/2014 05/04/2015
Obama Patrick Gallagher 09/10/2009 11/05/2009
Bush William Jeffrey 05/24/2005 07/22/2005
Bush Arden Bement, Jr. 08/16/2001 11/30/2001
Clinton Raymond Kammer 09/04/1997 11/09/1997
Clinton Arati Prabhakar 03/25/1993 05/28/1993
Bush Sr. John Lyons 11/17/1989 02/08/1990
Carter/Reagan Ernest Ambler 11/10/1977 02/01/1978
USGS Director
Administration Name Announcement Date Confirmation Date
Obama Suzette Kimball 01/09/2014 12/18/2015
Obama Marcia McNutt 07/09/2009 10/21/2009
Bush Mark Myers 05/03/2006 09/15/2006
Clinton Charles Groat 07/30/1998 10/21/1998
Clinton Gordon Eaton 01/05/1994 02/24/1994
Reagan Dallas Lynn Peck 06/09/1981 09/18/1981

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