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John Holdren speaks on science at the White House in 2015.

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Q&A: Former Obama science adviser John Holdren on the White House science office and Trump’s science policy

Yesterday, ScienceInsider reported on developments at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), which under President Donald Trump is now dramatically smaller than it was under former President Barack Obama and without a leader. Today, we talk with physicist John Holdren, who for 8 years was Obama’s top aide on science and technology issues. He also led OSTP, becoming the office’s longest-serving director since the office was created by Congress in 1976.

Holdren is now back at Harvard University, where he is a professor of environmental policy in both the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He says he is troubled by what has happened to his office, and to science policy, under Trump. Holdren spoke with ScienceInsider about those concerns and about the role OSTP plays in supporting the president’s agenda. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.   

Q: What does OSTP add to the mix of science advice that is already available to the president through Cabinet departments and other federal agencies?

A: The president needs people in the White House, under the same roof, who can integrate across the government. Of course, there is tremendous scientific talent across the federal agencies. But the president does not have much time to figure out who he needs to ask what question about what issue. And he has no way to know whose expertise he might be overlooking, because he can’t keep track of everything. So OSTP does that for him.

It was decided long ago that a science capability in the White House helps the president to get advice independent of the agenda of any particular Cabinet department. In other words, it’s good for the president to be able to say, “Gee, my defense secretary is telling me that an intercontinental ballistic missile system can do X and Y and we ought to quadruple the deployment. Do you agree with that?”

Agencies have agendas and sometimes they get captured by particular ideas. It’s the same reason there’s a National Security Council [NSC] and NSC staff within the White House. OSTP’s function is to be an integrator and honest broker on scientific issues that matter to the president.

OSTP also provides a source of people to be at the table during discussions convened by other White House bodies. If you’re relying on people without expertise in science and technology to figure out when science and technology may be relevant, and to summon the right people, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff. By having folks from the White House at those White House meetings, you don’t miss the often important perspective of science and technology in the discussion.

Another reason it’s important to have an OSTP director who also has the rank of assistant to the president is that you can initiate information to the president. You don’t have to wait for the president to ask you. You can send a memo to the president at any time and ask for a meeting. That’s what the rank of assistant to the president means. It conveys access.

The assumption that the president can get all the science advice he needs from the departments and agencies is not a great model because those departments in general don’t have the same level of access to the president as his senior staff do. Cabinet members don’t meet with the president nearly as often as senior staff, and the time is very limited. There’s little opportunity to raise an issue during a Cabinet meeting. So other departments and agencies use OSTP to get their ideas before the president. For example, the director of the National Institutes of Health [NIH] might call up the science adviser and say, “Hey, it would really be great if you mentioned to the president that we’re doing something interesting. And we could do more with a little bit more money.” Or, “It would be great if the president wanted to mention what we’re doing in a speech.”

Q: Why did you have such a large staff?

A: One reason was to cover the bases. We knew from the start that the Obama administration thought cybersecurity would be an important issue and we needed to be capable in that space. We also knew we needed people who were capable in climate change, in science and technology for economic recovery and job creation and sustained economic growth, and people who knew about advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology and biotechnology.

We also recruited to carry out specific initiatives, like in precision medicine, or combating antibiotic resistance, or the BRAIN [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies] initiative. Most of the work will go on in the departments and agencies, but you need someone to oversee it.

The reason we ended up with 135 people at our peak, which was twice the number during its previous peak in the Clinton administration’s second term, was that this president was so interested in knowing what science could do to advance his agenda, on economic recovery, or energy and climate change, or national intelligence. He got it. He didn’t need to be tutored on why science and technology matters.

I feel I’ve been given undue credit for [Obama] being a science geek. It wasn’t me. He came that way. He was constantly asking what we could do to move the needle. When the first flu epidemic, H1N1, came along, the president immediately turned to me and said, “OK, I want [the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] to look in depth on this, and OSTP, and NIH, and [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].” And he told us to coordinate my effort on this stuff—inform me on what can be done and assemble the relevant experts. It was the same with Ebola, with the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf, with Fukushima, where the United States stepped up to work with the Japanese.

It’s not that we had all the expertise. But our job was to reach out to those who did have the relevant expertise.

Q: OSTP now has 35 people. What does that level of staffing say to you?

A: I have to laugh.

Q: Why?

A: When I left, on 19 January, we were down to 30 people. And a substantial fraction of the 30 were people who, in a sense, keep the lights on. They were the OSTP general counsel and deputy counsel, the security officer and deputy, the budget folks, the accounting folks, the executive director of NSTC [National Science and Technology Council].

There are some scientists left, and there are some scientists there still. But on 30 June the last scientist in the science division left.

Somebody said OSTP has shut down. But that’s not quite it. There was no formal decision to shut anything down. But they did not renew the contract of the last remaining science folks in the science division.

I saw somebody say, “Well, we still have some Ph.D.s left.” And that’s undoubtedly true. There are still some science Ph.D.s left in the national security and international affairs division. But because [OSTP] is headless, they have no direct connection to the president and his top advisers.

I don’t want to disparage the top people there. The top people there now are Michael Kratsios, who they named the deputy chief technology officer, and Ted Wackler, who was my deputy chief of staff and who was [former OSTP Director] Jack Marberger’s deputy, and who I kept because he’s a fabulously effective manager. And I believe that they are doing everything they can to make sure that OSTP, at the very least, does the things it has to do. … But right now I think OSTP is just hanging on.

Q: Why did some people choose to stay on?

A: A large portion of OSTP staff are borrowed from other agencies, and because the White House is the White House, we get the people we need. These are dedicated folks who want to get the job done. They want to see science and technology applied to advance the public interest. And they were willing to stay and do their best despite the considerable uncertainty about their future.

But again, most of the detailees, and the reason we went from 135 to 30 almost overnight, is that it’s pretty standard for the detailees to go back to their home agencies and wait for the next administration to decide what set of detailees it wants to advance their objects.

So there’s nothing shocking that most of the detailees went back to their home agencies. The people who stayed are mostly employed directly by OSTP. What’s shocking is that, this far into the new administration, that number hasn’t gone back up. That is, they have only five more people than they had on January 20.

Q: What does that staffing level mean for the annual reports that OSTP is required to produce, such as a strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and for modernizing biotech regulations?

A: Well, a lot of these activities are run out of NSTC. And the person running NSTC left last month. Now, the relevant agencies always played a big role in compiling those reports because they sat on the NSTC STEM education committee. So the question is whether anybody is convening the NSTC committees that would ordinarily be producing these reports.

A related issue is the status of the big, multibillion-dollar cross-agency initiatives, like the nanotechnology initiative or the national information technology research and development program or the U.S. global change research program [USGCRP]. Those folks, as far as I know, are mostly still in place.

Q: Those coordination offices fall under NSTC?

A: Right. The USGCRP, for example, is actually under the auspices of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, Sustainability, within NSTC. It has five standing committees and a whole set of subcommittees. And each standing committee, which matches the four OSTP divisions and STEM education, has two co-chairs, one from OSTP and one from a relevant agency.

Q: But all those principals are gone, and nobody has been nominated?

A: Yes, that’s true both at OSTP and the relevant agencies.

Q: But the top people at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIH are still there?

A: Yes, because [NSF Director] France Córdova has a 6-year term. And they asked [NIH Director] Francis Collins to stay. He was not planning on staying, but they asked him to stay, and duty compelled him to say yes.

I think his decision to stay is indicative of the fact that, whatever priority people assign to science, there has always been a strong degree of bipartisan support for biomedical research. That’s because members of Congress are afflicted with the same maladies as everybody else, and they are the maladies that NIH is researching.

Another thing that is missing is that, historically, the development of the science and technology budget was a joint effort by OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and OSTP. All the key memos were jointly signed by the OMB and OSTP directors. Their staffs worked together closely in the submissions and passbacks [OMB’s reply to an agency’s initial request]. And in the end, there was a meeting with the OMB and OSTP directors and the chief of staff and the president, and the four of them discussed the requests, and anything that the president wanted to change.

But this time, there was essentially a vacuum on the OSTP side. I know of no interactions with OSTP in the development of the budget that was rolled out. So you end up with a science and technology budget that’s lacking any science and technology input from the White House. So that’s a big gap.

Q: What has happened to entities within OSTP like the National Ocean Council, and the Arctic Executive Steering Council?

A: I don’t know. I’ve heard nothing, and I assume nothing is happening. I have not done a lot of talking with the folks who stayed. It could make them uncomfortable, being in touch with the previous OSTP director.

I suspect that the Ocean Council is still in limbo. Most of the people who would sit on it haven’t been appointed yet. There’s no chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, or OSTP director, and no NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] or NASA administrator, and so on. None of them have been appointed. So I rather suspect that the Trump administration has not noticed yet what those bodies are and what they do. But to the extent they have noticed, they may have decided but made no announcement.

I rather doubt that the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which Obama created in 2015 and which I chaired, will be continued. Those things were created by executive order. And Trump has shown a great propensity to undo whatever Obama did, almost without regard for merit. If Obama did it, he wants to get rid of it.

Q: What’s your reaction to Trump’s decision to recreate the National Space Council, under Vice President Mike Pence?

A: As you may know, that issue came up at the beginning of the Obama administration and we debated whether or not it was a good idea. And we decided that it was not. The kind of people that you put on the National Space Council are some combination of people who don’t actually know anything about space, like the vice president, or people with a particular narrow agenda. And past administrations had found that the National Space Council was a pain in the neck. President Obama and [NASA Administrator] Charlie Bolden and [former White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and I talked about it, and we decided this is not a good idea.

I’m not attacking the notion of a National Space Council. If they want it, they can have it. It was a close call at the beginning of the Obama administration, and in the end we decided not to do it.

Q: So why did the Obama administration create these other science-related councils?

A: Space is different in this respect. Ocean issues are spread across 22 agencies and offices. Arctic issues are spread across 25 different departments and offices. That’s also true for STEM education and climate change.

In contrast, NASA has the bulk of the federal space programs. So you don’t have the problem of cross-agency coordination like you do on these other domains in which we set up these special councils. The Space Council is really not supposed to be coordinating across agencies. It’s supposed to be providing overall guidance from the White House.