Science—and our political and national wellbeing—is at a critical threshold.
Our democracy and our critical infrastructure are under siege because of hacking being done by foreign adversaries. Our climate is in danger, which means sea levels will rise and massive fires and storms are on the way. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are becoming more prominent, and we're not prepared for major diseases like Ebola.
But the Trump administration is not equipped to handle these issues.
That’s according to former Obama tech and science officials, who told The Daily Beast that without experts helping guide policy in Congress and the White House, things could get much worse.
It’s not entirely a new problem. Back in 1995, a government office you’ve probably never heard of—the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—was shut down. The OTA was tasked with having experts in technology and science advise Congress so tech and science-related policy would be based on the best information available. This was a bipartisan office that offered congressional laymen scientific and technological know-how for over 20 years.
The OTA was defunded largely because of then-Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who claimed it was a waste of money, even though its budget was a paltry $20 million. Since its closing, tech and science policy has been crafted largely by elderly statesmen who appear to understand little about tech and science.
Certain members of Congress, like Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), have been trying to revive this office for years, but there’s been little support for it.
“Technological innovation is advancing at a rapid pace and Congress is struggling to keep up,” Takano told The Daily Beast. “Whether it’s properly responding to a misinformation campaign from an adversary on social media or understanding how artificial intelligence will affect the U.S. workforce, it is crucial for Congress to have access to unbiased technology experts to effectively legislate during the digital age.”
The problem goes beyond Congress. The executive branch’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is a group of working professionals in the tech and science industry who are supposed to advise the president on these issues and coordinate tech and science-related efforts. That can’t happen if the office isn’t properly staffed and the president isn’t talking to the experts.
It has taken President Trump a long time to seemingly even acknowledge the OSTP. The office has been operating without an official director his entire presidency. Essentially, the office hasn’t been able to function as it should because of a lack of proper leadership. It’s also been severely understaffed.
“Trump was exceedingly slow to nominate anybody to direct the OSTP,” Dr. John Holdren, who ran the OSTP during both of President Obama’s terms, told The Daily Beast. “This is by far the longest OSTP has ever gone without a scientist leader.”
In this nearly two years that the office has been without an official director, America has faced hacking of election systems and its critical infrastructure, natural disasters and more issues that a fully functioning OSTP could have helped mitigate. Since it has not been a fully functioning office, it appears the response to these kinds of issues has been slower and less effective than it could have been.
After nearly two years, or halfway into his term, Trump recently nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the OSTP.
So does the OSTP—or any science-based initiatives within the government—have any reason to exist?
Holdren said Congress would benefit from reviving the OTA (however late it might be into the President’s first term), and the White House would benefit from actually utilizing the OSTP. Having experts around is, after all, a good thing. Sure, there are ample experts in areas like cybersecurity in our government, but without someone leading an effective OSTP, Holdren argued that those experts won’t necessarily ever get the president’s ear. This might explain why intelligence agencies have repeatedly expressed that they haven’t received any direction from the White House when it comes to things like countering Russian hacking.
“We have now a president of the United States who’s not interested in facts at all—whether they’re scientific facts, technological facts or other kinds of facts,” Holdren said. “And we have an administration under him which has been systematically reducing the relevance of analysis in key departments like the EPA and the Department of Interior.”
Dr. Kate Moran, who served as assistant director in the OSTP between 2009 and 2011, said the things being said by members of Congress and the Trump administration concerning topics like climate change have been “simply idiotic” and “the worst form of scientific denialism.” She also said Trump appears to be more interested in protecting corporations than he is in protecting the people from environmental disasters.
Moran doesn’t believe Trump would consult mobilize tech and science experts if such a disaster were to occur.
“During the Obama presidency, science and tech expertise was critical to the Administration’s response to a slew of new and emergent challenges: the BP oil spill disaster, Fukushima nuclear reactor, the risk of the first Ebola pandemic, Zika, technical verification of the Iran nuclear deal, major components of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s support for net neutrality, support for and growth of commercial space, to name a few,” Kumar Garg, who was a senior advisor at the OSTP for most of Obama’s presidency, told The Daily Beast.
Garg added threats and disasters are continuing to come our way, from Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico to our cybersecurity problems, but there aren’t enough tech and science experts being utilized at the highest levels of the government.
Not only does this lack of expertise impact our ability to defend ourselves from national security threats and ecological disasters, it damages capacity to compete on the world stage. “The rest of the world is becoming more science and technology savvy,” Phil Larson, who was a senior adviser at the OSTP for five years under President Obama, told The Daily Beast. “It’s critical to the new jobs of the 21st century. It’s critical to the new industries that will keep us competitive.”
Dr. Holdren said that the impacts of the Trump administration on tech and science issues go beyond the OSTP and Trump’s lack of interest in facts and expertise. He said Trump attacking groups like the intelligence community is “demoralizing” to those who are working to keep our country safe.
“Trump’s rampage through the organs of government that we have relied on to keep us safe and to keep us prosperous is dangerous,” Holdren said.
He believes Trump is causing talented people to leave their roles in these agencies, which means they won’t be there when a security issue calls. Holdren worked closely with former CIA Director John Brennan during President Obama’s administration, and he sees Brennan as “one of the smartest, most committed, most patriotic people” he’s ever met. Holdren added that Trump attacking Brennan and stripping him of his security clearance for being critical of his administration will demoralize important people in the science and intelligence communities and could make the country less safe.
The Obama administration veterans we spoke with all agreed that creating scientifically-reliant policies without the right information endangers our national security. Larson went so far as to say that Congress not adequately checking the president’s power makes the situation even more dire. Everyone who spoke with The Daily Beast agreed on one thing: We need more scientists and engineers running for office.
Holdren said that Trump’s “lack of leadership” and his “disdain for our analytical, scientific intelligence capabilities” is a serious problem, and there doesn’t seem to be much work being done to address that problem.