Is President-elect Donald Trump behind the curve on making his science appointments? More than two dozen U.S. scientific organizations have written urging him to act quickly. They worry that a long delay on key appointments could mean science will take a back seat in policy deliberations by the Trump administration.
But what does the record show?
Barack Obama is seen as setting the modern standard. On 20 December 2008, the president-elect used his weekly radio address to announce four prominent members of his “science and technology team.” The quartet—John Holdren, the president’s science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Harold Varmus and Eric Lander as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—were all recognized leaders of the U.S. scientific community. And 5 days before announcing those appointees, Obama named physicist Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate, as his nominee to run the Department of Energy (DOE). That roster, assembled so quickly after he won the election, fueled Obama’s claim to be a president who had restored “science to its rightful place” in government.
Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of that rollout. But few scientists hold out hope of a similar early announcement from Trump. There have been no credible rumors of researchers with a national stature being vetted for the post of science adviser, or even whether Trump plans to fill the job and preserve PCAST.
A look back at recent administrations suggests that there’s no clear pattern on when key science jobs are filled. Trump certainly must act quickly to keep pace with Obama’s initial December list. But previous administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, took much longer to act on many of the same positions. And even Obama waited several months before filling some key science positions in his administration.
Let’s start with the science adviser. Obama’s was the earliest on record for the current position, which dates to 1976. And Democrat Bill Clinton was close on his heels, selecting John Gibbons on Christmas Eve of 1992. But Frank Press wasn’t nominated as science adviser to Democrat Jimmy Carter until 18 March 1977. Republican presidents have lagged, but not by much. George H. W. Bush tabbed Allan Bromley on 21 April 1989, and Ronald Reagan announced his choice of George (Jay) Keyworth on 19 May 1981. George W. Bush waited until 25 June 2001 to unveil John Marburger.
Trump has decided on all but two Cabinet secretaries: agriculture and veterans affairs. That could mean independent agencies like NASA are next in line. But Obama didn’t rush to name a NASA administrator: He waited until 23 May 2009 to nominated Charles Bolden, who’s still in the job. Likewise, the current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, didn’t get the nod from Obama until 7 July 2009—2 days before Marcia McNutt was nominated to lead the U.S. Geological Survey.
Trump doesn’t have to fill some top science jobs if he likes the incumbent. At the National Science Foundation, France Córdova’s 6-year term as director runs until March 2020. And some Republican senators and research community leaders are urging Trump to keep Collins at NIH.
At the same time, dozens of political appointees hold senior management positions across science agencies, such as running DOE’s $5.5 billion Office of Science, and their spots will need to be filled eventually. In the meantime, expect a raft of career civil servants to serve as interim or acting bosses after Trump is sworn in on 20 January 2017. That transition will occur even sooner at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where Director Willie May is retiring on 3 January 2017 after a 45-year career at the agency.