NEWS

Trump’s science-adviser pick hedges on climate change

Meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier offered few clues to his views on the topic when grilled at a US Senate hearing.

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Droegemeier gestures as he speaks into a microphone on a podium in the Bizzell Library at Univ. Oaklahoma

Kelvin Droegemeier, seen here at the University of Oklahoma, is US President Donald Trump's nominee for science adviser.Credit: Travis Caperton, Univ. Oklahoma

Kelvin Droegemeier — President Donald Trump’s nominee for science adviser — revealed little about his stance on climate change during his nomination hearing before a Senate committee on 23 August. But some experts attribute his elusiveness to deftly manoeuvering a politically sensitive topic, rather than doubts about the science.

The researcher, a meteorologist that Trump nominated to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on 31 July, told committee members that science should be conducted without political interference or influence. “I am absolutely firm on the point,” Droegemeier said.

But he equivocated on whether views that are in the minority, such as doubts about the human role in climate change, should be included in policymaking decisions. “Science never provides immutable evidence about anything,” he said. “I think science is the loser when we tend to vilify and marginalize other voices. We need to have everyone at the table.”

Staying positive

When pressed by Republican and Democratic committee members about climate change, Droegemeier offered little, other than saying that bringing the weather and climate-modelling communities together could improve forecasts for activities such as agriculture.

If confirmed, the meteorologist would join an administration that has sought to cut climate-change programmes at the Environmental Protection Agency, roll back federal regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions and pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

Scientists were largely encouraged when Trump nominated Droegemeier to lead the OSTP, which helps to coordinate science policy and spending between federal agencies. And despite the elusiveness of the meteorologist’s statements regarding climate change, Neal Lane, a physicist who served as science adviser to former president Bill Clinton, remains optimistic. “No one in Congress is going to say extreme weather events are not important,” he said. And linking those episodes with climate science is vital, Lane added. “There’s nobody better to do that than Kelvin Droegemeier.”

Representation

Other questions from lawmakers focused on scientific competition from China and on sexual harassment in research.

“We need to make sure we are the strongest research center in the world,” said Droegemeier. He added that China has a history of stealing intellectual property. And although welcoming foreign researchers is an important part of science in the United States, Droegemeier said, it should be done with care.

He also spoke up in favor of a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) policy that requires institutions to report agency-funded researchers who are found to have committed sexual harassment. “We owe all scientists a safe place to work,” Droegemeier said. If confirmed to lead the OSTP, he said, he will turn the attention of all agencies under his purview to this issue. He also plans to focus on increasing representation of women and people from under-represented groups in science; the OSTP is already working on a strategic plan in this area.

Lane, who had written to the Senate committee in support of Droegemeier’s nomination, was impressed with how the meteorologist answered the senators’ questions in what he called a friendly hearing. “It portends a good relationship between Kelvin and the Senate on both sides of the aisle,” he says. “I think it’s a bright day for science.”

What’s next

In his opening remarks, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said that Droegemeier has impressive scientific qualifications. The meteorologist was vice-president for research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman from 2009 until this year. He stepped down from his position on 20 August, in advance of his confirmation hearing.

Droegemeier also served on the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF, under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. He is the current secretary of science and technology for Oklahoma.

The Senate committee will likely vote on whether to advance Droegemeier’s nomination to the full Senate during the first week of September. If a majority votes for his confirmation, Droegemeier will be the first non-physicist to take the reins at the OSTP since Congress established the office in 1976.

Nature 560, 536-537 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06019-7
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Updates & Corrections

  • Update 23 August 2018: This story has been updated with comments from Neal Lane and additional responses from Kelvin Droegemeier on his views regarding politics in science and climate change.

  • Update 23 August 2018: The story has been updated with information on when committee members will vote on sending Droegemeier's nomination to the full Senate.

  • Update 28 August 2018: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that on 28 August, the Senate committee postponed the vote on advancing Kelvin Droegemeier's nomination to the full Senate.