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The wait is over: Trump taps meteorologist as White House science adviser

Nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier could end long drought at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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Kelvin Droegemeier is an expert in extreme-weather events. Credit: AP/Shutterstock

US President Donald Trump will nominate meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier as his government’s top scientist. If confirmed by the Senate, Droegemeier would lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Trump, who took office 19 months ago, has gone longer without a top science adviser than any first-term president since at least 1976.

“My initial reaction is, wow, they found someone,” says Kei Koizumi, visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC and a former assistant director at the OSTP under president Barack Obama.

Droegemeier would be the first non-physicist to serve as White House science adviser since Congress established the OSTP in 1976. “I think he is a very solid choice,” says John Holdren, who led the OSTP for eight years as Obama’s science adviser. “He is a respected senior scientist and he has experience in speaking science to power.”

An expert on extreme-weather events, Droegemeier has been vice-president for research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman since 2009. Last year, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, appointed him as the state’s secretary of science and technology.

The meteorologist has also served on the National Science Board (NSB), which oversees the National Science Foundation, under presidents Obama and George W. Bush. Droegemeier led NSB committees on hurricane science and research administration, among other topics, and was the board’s vice-chairman from 2012 to 2016.

“He combines a lot of qualities in somebody you’d like to see in public service,” says Roger Pielke Jr, a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied the history of US science advisers and who worked with Droegemeier in the 1990s and early 2000s. “He is, in the most positive way, a nerdy meteorologist who loved working on weather technology. And he also has a knack for administration and working his way around the system.”

A shifting role for science

If confirmed, Droegemeier will take control of an office radically reshaped by the Trump administration. The president has reduced the number of OSTP staff members to about 50, well below the 130 employed by Obama. The Trump team has also placed greater emphasis on technology issues, and has repeatedly sought to cut or eliminate high-profile science programmes — including a public-health preparedness fund at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, climate-change programmes at the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

Droegemeier, who has not returned Nature’s request for comment, seems to be a strong supporter of federally funded research. In an opinion piece published last year in the Des Moines Register, he called for the White House and Congress to shore up federal research funding. “Though the benefits of short-term savings in the yearly federal budgets may be appealing, they result in insidious, long-term consequences,” he wrote. “Due to underfunding, we risk losing an entire generation of researchers.”

Some of Droegemeier’s colleagues hope that he would help to shift the Trump administration's thinking on climate change. “I'm certain he believes in mainstream climate science," says Rosina Bierbaum, an environmental-policy expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has held multiple presidential advisory roles. Bierbaum and Drogemeier worked on climate-change issues together while on the board of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“He’s an excellent communicator and really good at distilling complex issues,” she says.

But such skills don't guarantee success in the science-adviser job, experts warn. “Kelvin will be a good science adviser, but so much of what makes an effective science adviser depends not on the person, but on the president and the White House,” says Koizumi.

Playing catch-up

The OSTP has managed to keep working without a permanent director, developing strategies to monitor space weather and boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. But Koizumi says that Trump would benefit from having a science adviser to consult when making decisions on issues such as natural disasters.

Because the position has remained vacant for so long, “they’ll be filling from behind” to get the OSTP fully staffed, says Phil Larson, a senior adviser in Obama’s OSTP who is now assistant dean of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Now the question will be, will his voice be represented around the table in the discussions that are going on at the highest levels of the government?”

And serving as the top scientist in an administration that has been criticized for its science policy could be difficult in other ways. “Droegemeier’s going to get all sorts of questions,” says Pielke. “There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure.” He sees a probable analogue in the experiences of John Marburger, the physicist who advised president George W. Bush.

Marburger was sharply criticized for supporting government policies that were unpopular with the scientific community — such as Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and to restrict federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. “It’s going to get tough pretty quickly for [Droegemeier],” Pielke says.

Neal Lane, science adviser to president Bill Clinton, says the position is always a tough one. “Given the circumstances, I can’t think of anybody who would do a better job,” he adds.

It is not clear whether the White House intends to appoint Droegemeier as an assistant to the president, a position held by several recent White House science advisers — including Holdren. The title, which is separate from that of OSTP director, essentially signals close ties to the president and his top aides. An OSTP spokesperson says that any decision about whether to give Droegemeier an additional title would be made after his confirmation by the Senate.

Nature 560, 150-151 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05862-y
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