Climate, energy jobs vanish at science office

By Christa Marshall | 08/04/2017 12:58 PM EDT

The White House science office has lost most of its energy and environment staff, including nearly all employees dedicated solely to climate change, according to records obtained by E&E News.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy, with offices in the White House compound’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is smaller than it used to be under the new administration.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy, with offices in the White House compound’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is smaller than it used to be under the new administration. Almonroth/Wikipedia

The White House science office has lost most of its energy and environment staff, including nearly all employees dedicated solely to climate change, according to records obtained by E&E News.

The Trump administration’s overhaul of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, documented in papers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, also shows many high-level positions, such as a chief of staff, remain vacant. President Trump has yet to nominate a director.

The White House said last month there were about 35 people working at OSTP — fewer than a third of the number during the Obama administration — but the exact makeup of the office remained unclear.


Former OSTP Director John Holdren said in an interview the staffing "is a symptom" of the administration’s wider rollback of climate and energy initiatives.

"It’s clear that science and technology rank very low on the Trump administration’s current priorities," said the former Obama aide.

The OSTP roster as of July 31 shows that five positions remain out of what used to be 20 in the energy and environment division, which led efforts on climate, oceans, clean energy and transportation.

OSTP overall recently had 38 people. In comparison, the Obama administration list included about 130 aides at OSTP, including four assistant directors in the energy and environment division focused on climate.

All those positions — including assistant directors for climate science, climate adaptation and ecosystems, climate resilience, and land use — are vacant.

Other positions vacant include:

  • Associate director for environment and energy
  • Assistant directors for clean energy and transportation and environmental health
  • Executive director or policy adviser for Arctic Executive steering committee

All nine members of the former science division departed. Also up in the air is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which produced reports on advanced manufacturing, climate and other issues (Energywire, May 11). The current roster no longer shows an executive director of PCAST.

‘Still doing great work’

Energy and environment division at the White House science office. Photo credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News
The energy and environment division at the White House science office no longer includes employees in most assistant director positions. | Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News

An administration official said the five staff members from the previous administration’s energy and environment division are "still doing great work."

They include the assistant director of natural disaster resilience and the director of the National Ocean Council, who is also serving as the acting lead of the division. Some climate change work has been incorporated into other jobs, the official said.

Outside of the energy division, the Trump roster includes a director of the National Climate Assessment, a report examining U.S. global warming impacts.

"There are a handful of qualified candidates being considered for OSTP director," the official added. "That process is still very much in motion, and we hope to have a nominee soon."

Most of the staff declines occurred because of people returning to home agencies, not layoffs, the official said.

The official said OSTP is operating under the general branches of "science, technology and national security," although there has not been an official reorganization.

The office still "regularly engages" with other White House entities, including the National Security Council, said the official.

There are some new hires, including Sean Bonyun as the assistant director for legislative affairs and Stephanie Xu, "a special assistant and policy adviser" who formerly worked for the Republican National Committee. Bonyun is a former House Energy and Commerce communications director.

Michael Kratsios, a former top aide to White House adviser Peter Thiel, is deputy assistant to the president and deputy chief technology officer. Kratsios previously served as chief of staff at Thiel Capital.

‘Miss opportunities’

Some reshuffling at OSTP is standard, but by now, new administrations typically have built the staff back up, according to Holdren.

He said he was concerned that in case of a crisis — such as the recent Ebola epidemic — the administration wouldn’t be able to move fast enough in coordinating officials across agencies.

"If there is nobody home at OSTP, or nobody home of sufficient rank to be present in the room when the National Security Council is meeting, the Domestic Policy Council is meeting, they are either going to make mistakes or going to miss opportunities," said Holdren.

John Holdren. Photo credit: Office of Science and Technology Policy/Wikipedia
John Holdren. | Office of Science and Technology Policy/Wikipedia

More broadly, he said, the lack of traditional OSTP leadership in guiding science and technology priorities in the federal budget was clear in the "crazy cuts" proposed by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget.

"OMB doesn’t have the science and technology expertise that OSTP does, so it’s a partnership. That partnership simply has not been functioning in this administration," he said.

In recent years, the U.S. spent about $140 billion in research and development. Holdren said making sure that money is well spent is a major function at OSTP.

Without top officials in place, OSTP also can’t be an important liaison to the scientific community and the critical "eyes and ears" of the president on science and technology issues, including in meetings with foreign nations, he said.

OSTP was created in 1976 to provide "scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the president." It’s not unprecedented for there to be a delay in nominating a director, although the Trump administration has delayed the process more than recent presidents.

President Obama appointed a science adviser within a month of his election, while President George W. Bush took about six months.

Obama and Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush gave the director of OSTP a second title of "assistant to the president for science and technology," a dual appointment that advocates say is critical to keep science high on the president’s agenda.

Members of Congress and leaders of scientific organizations have sent a flurry of letters since Trump’s election saying a fully staffed office is needed to ensure science priorities are reflected in the federal budget and rulemaking (E&E Daily, April 24).

‘Things haven’t moved’

Critics of the office say Obama made it too political. The conservative Heritage Foundation said in a paper last year that OSTP’s mission could be served through appointed committees.

Other observers note that the Obama administration approximately doubled the size of OSTP from staff levels during the Clinton administration.

Holdren said OSTP could serve its basic functions with 50 or 60 people, if top positions are filled. But it wouldn’t be able to take on new initiatives, he said.

The Obama administration, for example, produced the first national ocean policy with help from OSTP, he said. Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing to block it from implementation.

The Trump administration official said it’s likely OSTP will end up with "around 60" employees.

Although a nominee for director is coming "soon," two of the scientists considered for the position say they haven’t been in touch with the White House recently.

Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter said in an email this week that as far as he knew, "things haven’t moved since I last met with the relevant people in late spring." Gelernter met with the president in January,

So did Princeton University physicist William Happer, who said in an email he has heard nothing from the White House. Both Happer and Gelernter have questioned whether humans are driving climate change (Greenwire, Feb. 7).

When asked about the possibility of a man-made global warming skeptic as director, Holdren said he would likely prefer the position remain vacant in that case.

"It’s a close call," depending on whether the nominee had expertise in other scientific areas that would be useful, he said.

If Trump "picked a strong climate skeptic, that person would not have the respect of the science and technology community," Holdren said.