The president names a science adviser.

Tuesday I was composing a post for LOTRW. It began in this vein…

This past week saw the Washington Post run yet another story on the lack of a presidential science advisor in the current administration. The story’s author, Ben Guarino, noted this was cause for concern: Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, in 1976 as a way to channel scientific analysis and advice to the president. Most presidents also gave OSTP directors the title of assistant to the president for science and technology. That appointment allowed advisers to directly and confidentially communicate with the president.

In the past, science advisers guided presidents during disease outbreaks, natural disasters, biological weapons attacks and other national crises. The advisers also led the OSTP’s review of federal research and collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget to develop a research budget.

Science advisers to the president typically hold advanced degrees and have leadership experience in research institutions. The job requires comprehension of dozens of branches of science and fields as varied as national security, climate and artificial intelligence…

…On Monday, Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) sent a letter to Trump urging the president to select a science adviser. “Currently, nine out of ten key OSTP staff positions remain vacant,” he said.

Nothing less than U.S. scientific leadership is at risk, Coons warned. “I remain quite concerned that, when it comes to science, America is falling behind its major competitors,” he said, citing a skyrocketing trend in Chinese research and development…”

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What a difference 24 hours can make! Before the day was out, the news media were stating that the president intends to nominate Kelvin Droegemeier to the post.

Some reflections:

1.A truly distinguished selection! Kelvin Droegemeier is an eminent researcher, teacher, and science administrator. His numerical predictive modeling of weather extremes on the mesoscale, and his application of adaptive-grid techniques to such modeling, has proven cutting-edge with respect to both advancing fundamental scientific understanding and computational technique. His leadership potential was recognized early on, while he was a Center Director at the University of Oklahoma. His tenure as OU’s Vice President for Research and his accompanying stint on the National Science Board overseeing the National Science Foundation broadened his experience with and feel for issues and challenges spanning the whole of science. His more recent additional duties as science adviser to the governor of Oklahoma have shown that he can match science to societal needs. Throughout he’s maintained high positive energy and exhibited and honed extraordinary interpersonal skills; the people who know him the best like and respect him the most.

2.Can all that ability be translated into effective performance? Time will tell. The president’s science adviser doesn’t directly supervise thousands of professionals. Nor does he (or someday she!) control billion-dollar budgets, such as those of the federal science agencies. Instead, the adviser’s stock in trade is the trust of two quite distinct and different parties – the small, but broadly powerful White House, comprising the president and his staff; and the equally important but larger and far more diffuse and multi-faceted science community. At this initial moment, it’s clear both groups trust him personally. Otherwise the White House would not have surfaced his name… and the initial science community reaction wouldn’t have been so uniformly positive.

Should he be nominated and confirmed, Mr. Droegemeier’s success (and ultimately, his legacy) will be measured by the extent to which he is able over time to encourage: (1) both White House and scientists to be a bit more trusting of each other; (2) work together a bit more smoothly on salient science bits of the national agenda; and (3) repeat. The recent relationship between White House and science has been contentious. As a result, several iterations of this process will be required before U.S. innovation will be once again proceeding with the vigor and the sense of common purpose needed to keep pace with the growing needs of the Nation and the world for water, food, energy, and other resources; for improved public health; for safety in the face of hazards and national security more broadly; for protection of vital ecosystem services; for robust critical infrastructure; and for economic growth and technological advance; and more.

It’s widely argued and generally understood that trust must be earned. Fair enough. But in this circumstance, it’s important that we all understand, political leaders and scientists alike, that trust is also something we grant (see also this earlier LOTRW post from 2011). Accordingly, our job is less to sit in judgment of Mr. Droegemeier than to rally around behind him – that is, if we want humanity to prosper and the U.S. to retain a vital role in world affairs.

In this regard our history is checkered. When John H. Marburger III accepted the invitation of then-president George W. Bush to be his science adviser, his reward was to be widely reviled by scientists for what were perceived as shortcomings in his performance in that role, and even for agreeing to serve in the first place.

Mr. Marburger deserved better – and so will Mr. Droegemeier. When he struggles from time to time with the job – and he surely will – let’s stand by today’s initial positive judgment. Let’s not jettison our current high regard in favor of tongue-clucking. Instead, let’s recognize he faces tasks and circumstances far more daunting than those confronted by science advisers in recent experience. And let’s pull a little harder to keep science and our country moving in a positive direction. Let’s keep in mind that to the extent he struggles, we have ourselves to blame. And as he succeeds, we might each indulge ourselves a small congratulatory pat on the back.

Chances are good the confirmation hearing will provide all of us – political leaders, the general public, and scientists alike – an early Rorschach test. Right out of the box, we’ll hear a question along the lines of “Dr. Droegemeier, is climate change a problem? What should we do about it?” How we feel about and respond to his answer to this – and his answers to dozens of other similarly polarizing questions – will reveal more about us than about him.

More in a later post.

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