Meet the climate and energy wonks in Biden’s embattled science office

By Robin Bravender, Kelsey Brugger | 05/16/2022 01:13 PM EDT

Biden and OSTP collage

President Joe Biden has stacked his White House science shop with climate and renewable energy experts. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Gage Skidmore/Flickr (Biden); Freepik (Globes)

President Joe Biden has stacked his White House science office with veteran researchers charged with expanding the government’s climate science and renewable energy research expertise.

On his first day in office, Biden sought to raise the profile of the Office of Science and Technology Policy after it was a low priority during the Trump administration, with its climate research relegated to the back burner.

But even as Biden elevates the science shop and its climate portfolio, the staffers and work of the traditionally opaque science office remain largely behind the scenes.

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A May 13 staff list — the most recent roster that’s publicly available — offers details about the people working on some of the Biden administration’s top science priorities.

The president picked two veteran scientists to lead the White House’s climate and energy efforts. Former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco took the helm of OSTP’s climate and environment division; Biden hired decarbonization expert Sally Benson in November to oversee a new energy division within the science office.

They’ve stocked up their teams with experts on topics including oceans, biodiversity, electricity and environmental justice. The White House is also asking Congress to significantly expand the science office’s full-time staff, which would likely mean more employees dedicated to the climate and energy divisions.

The administration’s sprint to staff up the climate and energy teams comes as OSTP was beset by low morale, staff turnover and the sudden exit of OSTP Director Eric Lander this year following allegations that he created a toxic workplace.

But the drama at the top didn’t drag down the science office’s climate and energy work, Benson told E&E News in a recent interview. “We didn’t slow down a bit,” she said.

Biden announced a “new chapter” for OSTP this year, appointing deputy Alondra Nelson to “perform the duties of director.” It’s unclear whether she’ll get the nod to serve in the role permanently, but she’s made an attempt to improve the office’s public perception, giving magazine interviews and posting Twitter updates about recent work.

People familiar with OSTP say the climate and environment teams were somewhat insulated from the Lander turbulence and that, generally, collaboration has improved.

“Spirits seem to be up,” said Andrew Rosenberg, a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nelson is “sending out weekly updates. I think people are more engaged in their work and not looking over their shoulder to see if Lander is coming.”

‘Sister’ organizations

The climate and energy offices within OSTP operate as “sister” organizations, Benson said. Lubchenco’s staff focuses on climate science, water issues and biodiversity. Benson’s division was created to zero in on climate solutions and the need for a “massive effort to transform the energy system,” she said.

They’ve already brought in some other heavy hitters from the climate and energy research worlds, but they’re hoping to hire even more people.

Biden has asked Congress to fund a total of 46 full-time staff for OSTP in 2023 — more than double the 22 full-time employees on staff in 2021, when Biden entered the White House. If those positions are funded, OSTP would have more full-time staffers than any year dating back to at least 1990, according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

“Anything you could do to bring up the numbers, I think would be good,” said Don Wuebbles, who served in the Obama White House as OSTP’s assistant director for climate science. OSTP is “begging and borrowing otherwise” to get the expertise it needs.

The science office is also staffed by detailees on loan from other agencies and fellows funded by outside organizations. The office’s defenders say the use of fellows and consultants has been customary for some time, but the practice came under increased scrutiny after POLITICO published a story revealing billionaire Eric Schmidt’s notable level of influence.

The latest publicly available staff list showed OSTP with 140 total employees, including those funded by other departments and organizations. Of those, 28 are currently dedicated to the Climate & Environment Team, which cover many themes like oceans, the Arctic, nature and environmental health, according to details provided by OSTP.

Here’s a look of some of Biden’s top climate and energy aides:

  • Lubchenco is deputy director for climate and environment. She described her role last year as making sure “there is good science at the table when the administration is considering important actions.” She’s a well-known marine biologist who worked with then-Vice President Biden when she was NOAA administrator during the Obama administration. Many advocates would like to see her named as the next OSTP director (Greenwire, May 25, 2021). 
  • Benson was hired last fall when Biden announced the creation of the new energy division within OSTP. She’s an earth scientist and engineer by training who has worked at Stanford University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Her new office was created to help achieve Biden’s goal of getting the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 
  • Costa Samaras came from Carnegie Mellon University, where he was an associate professor in the engineering science and technology program. He’s been a contributor to major national climate reports, including as lead author for the Global Energy Assessment. Last year, he worked with a team of researchers on a paper exploring the environmental risks associated with Uber and Lyft. He’s done several media interviews advocating for electric vehicles. 
  • Philip Duffy, a veteran physicist who worked in the Obama White House, joined last August as OSTP increased the number of scientists on staff. He played a critical role in helping the administration prepare for last year’s U.N. summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the office said at the time. He told E&E News he planned to encourage relevant agencies to do more research to improve climate solutions (Greenwire, Sept. 1, 2021).
  • Tom Wilson started on Benson’s energy team last month as assistant director for electricity. He was previously a climate change-focused researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute. He contributed to domestic and international climate change reports. 
  • Michael Kuperberg rejoined the White House after he was removed by the Trump administration from his post as executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which oversees the National Climate Assessment, a major report produced every four years. Before Trump, Kuperberg had a long history of working on climate science for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
  • Laura Petes is chief of staff for the climate and environment team; she’s also assistant director for climate resilience. She’s a veteran of OSTP who led the office’s climate resilience portfolio during the Obama administration.  

Other key staff in the OSTP climate and environment division

  • Sarah Abdelrahim, deputy director, U.S. Global Change Research Program 
  • Deerin Babb-Brott, assistant director for oceans and environment
  • David Balton, executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee
  • Melanie Buser, assistant director for environmental health
  • Haley Case-Scott, climate and environment policy assistant 
  • Allison Crimmins, director of the National Climate Assessment
  • Raychelle Daniel, deputy director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee and policy adviser for Indigenous knowledge
  • Eli Fenichel, assistant director for natural resource economics and accounting
  • Gretchen Goldman, assistant director for environmental science, engineering, policy, and justice
  • Patrick Gonzalez, assistant director for climate and biodiversity
  • Larry Hinzman, assistant director for polar sciences
  • Maria Honeycutt, assistant director for resilience science and technology
  • Amanda Netburn, assistant director for ocean science and policy
  • Benjamin Preston, assistant director for climate services, adaptation and workforce 
  • Heather Tallis, assistant director for biodiversity and conservation science 
  • Scott Weaver, executive director of the Interagency Meteorological Coordination Office
  • ‘Aulani Wilhelm, assistant director for ocean conservation, climate, equity

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