Breaking: Trump’s pick to head White House science office gets good reviews
The long wait for a White House science advisor is over. President Donald Trump today is expected to announce that he intends to nominate meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier, a university administrator and former vice-chair of the governing board of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The OSTP director traditionally, but not always, also holds the title of the president’s science advisor.
The move caps a search process of record-setting length–nearly 560 days, double the time taken by other modern presidents to name an OSTP director. Many in the research community had lamented the delay. But the wait may have been worth it: Droegemeier, a respected veteran of the Washington policy-making scene, is getting positive reviews from science and university groups.
“He’s a very good pick… He has experience speaking science to power,” says environmental policy expert John Holdren, who served as science advisor under President Barack Obama and is now at Harvard University. “I expect he’ll be energetic in defending the [research and development] budget and climate change research in particular.”
Maria Zuber, a planetary geophysicist and vice president for research at MIT, agrees that Droegemeier will stand up for climate science. “He always has. I see no reason why he wouldn’t now.” But she says his style is not confrontational. “He’s a good old boy. He wears cowboy boots. … He’s a personable guy.” She adds that “He’s got solid conservative credentials,” noting that his web page is emblazoned with “God Bless America!!!”
“He is an excellent choice,” says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C. “He has a strong understanding of issues of concern to research universities.”
“Kelvin is a solid scientist, excellent with people, and with deep experience with large bureaucracies,” says Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A moderate voice that won’t politicize the science.”
Droegemeier, who has served on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma (UO) in Norman for 33 years and been the school’s vice president for research since 2009, has long been rumored to be in the running for the OSTP job, which entails advising the President on technical issues and overseeing coordination of federal science policy. He is no stranger to Washington; President George W. Bush named him to the National Science Board, which oversees NSF, in 2004, and President Barack Obama re-appointed him in 2011. He served as the board’s vice-chair from 2014 to 2017.
He has also served as a formal and informal advisor to federal and state politicians. He leads a state science advisory panel named by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and advised former Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine, now the administrator of NASA. Recently, he helped craft federal legislation aimed at bolstering weather forecasting that last year passed Congress with bipartisan support. Those connections – as well as his links to David Boren, a former Democratic Senator from Oklahoma who last month retired from the UO presidency — likely helped bring Droegemeier’s name to the attention of the Trump administration.
A serious scientist
Droegemeier, who is 59, earned his Ph.D. in atmospheric science for University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985. As a researcher, he focused on numerical weather forecasting, including studies of thunderstorm dynamics, and helped develop the use of supercomputers to run atmospheric models. He helped found and lead two NSF-funded centers: one focused on the analysis and prediction of storms, the other was a hub for “collaborative adaptive sensing of the atmosphere.” His most cited paper – with 1066 citations – described a “multi-scale nonhydrostatic atmospheric simulation and prediction model” and was published in 2000 in the journal Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics.
“His command of both science and policy issues is nearly unmatched in the community,” says Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of the American Meteorological Society in Boston. Wakimoto says he has known Droegemeier since graduate school and predicts he will be “a superb spokesperson for the community.”
“Kelvin is one of the most respected colleagues in the field of meteorology but also has the experience and savvy to interact at the highest policy levels,” adds Marshall Shepherd, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia, Athens, and chair of NASA’s Earth Sciences Advisory Committee.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Droegemeier will take the helm of an office that has been buffeted by change and uncertainty. Under Obama, OSTP’s staff grew to some 135 people, and it was active in shaping budget and policy plans, particularly in the climate change arena. Under Trump, OSTP’s staff plummeted to about 35 last year but has since grown to about 60 under the leadership of its de facto head, Michael Kratsios, OSTP’s deputy chief technology officer.
Holdren says Droegemeier has “a big challenge ahead of him… I look forward to seeing what he’s able to accomplish in a very challenging circumstance.” Trump has a reputation for ignoring expert advice. But “it could well be that [Droegemeier is] thinking: here’s a chance to make a small difference and to at least be a small voice of reason,” says Rick Anthes, president emeritus of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
One of Droegemeier’s first tasks, Holdren says, will be developing strong working relationships the other senior White House staff, including the head of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the annual budget request to Congress. Thus far, Holdren believes Trump’s budget requests, which have called for large cuts in some science agencies, “reflect that weakness of not having a senior scientist engaged as an equal in that process.” Another task, Holdren believes, will be “rebuilding the science part” of OSTP, which under Trump has emphasized technology and workforce issues.
“Having such a strong leader… as head of OSTP is essential to ensuring science is a key factor considered in the policymaking process,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C. “All Americans are better off when science has a seat at the table.”
Mostly, researchers are relieved that science will finally have some voice in the White House. “I wish it had happened a lot earlier,” Holdren says. “But on the other hand, many of us weren’t sure it would ever happen.”
With reporting by Adrian Cho, Eric Hand, Jocelyn Kaiser and Paul Voosen