President Donald Trump examines a drone at a 22 June meeting with technology leaders that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy helped organize.

Olivier Douliery/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Trump’s White House science office still small and waiting for leadership

The 1976 law that created the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) lets presidents tailor the office to fit their priorities. Under former President Barack Obama, OSTP grew to a record size and played a role in all the administration’s numerous science and technology initiatives. In contrast, President Donald Trump has all but ignored OSTP during his first 6 months in office, keeping it small and excluding it from even a cursory role in formulating science-related policies and spending plans.

OSTP is not alone across the government in awaiting a new crop of key managers. But such leadership voids can be paralyzing for a small shop. Trump has yet to nominate an OSTP director, who traditionally also serves as the president’s science adviser. Nor has he announced his choices for as many as four other senior OSTP officials who would need to be confirmed by the Senate. An administration official, however, told Science that OSTP has reshuffled its work flow—and that there’s a short list for the director’s position.

That nominee would replace physicist John Holdren, who led OSTP for the entirety of the Obama administration. Under Holdren, the office had four divisions—science, environment and energy, national security and international affairs, and technology and innovation. OSTP also housed an Office of the Chief Technology Officer, created in 2009 to beef up the White House’s digital capabilities. At its peak, Obama’s OSTP had 135 people, Holdren says, two-thirds of them on loan from other agencies and outside institutions. That number had plummeted to 30 by Trump’s inauguration, as those detailees returned home.

What’s shocking is that, this far into the new administration, the numbers haven’t gone back up.

John Holdren, Harvard University

OSTP now has 35 staffers, says an administration official who declined to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media. Holdren, who in January returned to Harvard University, says the plunge in staff levels is normal during a presidential transition. “But what’s shocking is that, this far into the new administration, the numbers haven’t gone back up.”

The office’s only political appointee is Michael Kratsios, a former aide to Trump confidant and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Kratsios is serving as OSTP’s deputy chief technology officer and de facto OSTP head. Eight new detailees have arrived from other agencies since the inauguration.

Although there has been no formal reorganization of OSTP, a “smaller, more collaborative staff” is now grouped around three areas—science, technology, and national security—according to the Trump aide. Three holdovers from Obama’s OSTP are leading teams focused on specific themes—Lloyd Whitman in technology, Chris Fall in national security, and Deerin Babb-Brott in environment and energy. They report to Kratsios and Ted Wackler, a career civil servant who was Holdren’s deputy chief of staff and who joined OSTP under former President George W. Bush.

“It’s a very flat structure,” says the Trump official, consistent with the administration’s view that “government should be looking for ways to do more with less.” Ultimately, the official adds, “the goal is [for OSTP] to have “probably closer to 50 [people].”

Holdren says his staff—substantially larger than OSTP’s under Bush and twice its previous peak under former President Bill Clinton—reflected Obama’s desire to elevate science and technology in his administration. “The president was so interested in knowing what science could do to advance his agenda, be it on economic recovery, energy and climate change, or national security,” Holdren says. In contrast, Holdren says, “right now I think OSTP is just hanging on.”

A briefing book prepared by Obama’s outgoing OSTP staff may be a small but telling indication of the office’s current status. The thick, three-ring binder, covering 100 issues, was modeled on one that Holdren received from John “Jack” Marburger, Bush’s OSTP director. “Jack did a fabulous job of laying out what OSTP does, including what reports it owes Congress, so we decided to do likewise,” Holdren says. “But nobody came [from Trump’s transition team] to collect it until a week before the inauguration.”

That person was Reed Cordish, the 43-year-old scion of billionaire real estate developer David Cordish. An English major in college, Reed Cordish was briefly a professional tennis player before joining the family business. He “spent an hour with us and took the book away,” Holdren says. “He told us, ‘This is an important operation and I’ll do my best to see that it flourishes.’ But we don’t know … whether he has the clout to make that happen.”

Cordish is now assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives. He works in the new Office of American Innovation led by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. That office arranged a recent meeting with high-tech executives, and is also leading yet another White House attempt to “reinvent” government.

Although much about OSTP’s future remains uncertain, Trump has renewed the charter of the National Science and Technology Council, a multiagency group that carries out much of the day-to-day work of advancing the president’s science initiatives. He has also retained three offices that oversee the government’s multibillion-dollar efforts in nanotechnology, information technology research, and climate change. Still pending is the status of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a body of eminent scientists and high-tech industry leaders that went out of business at the end of the Obama administration.