Seven months into his term, President Donald Trump hasn’t picked anyone to fill 32 of 44 top federal science positions, and half of those he has nominated have significant ties to the industries they would regulate.
Dozens of federal agencies – overseeing issues from the census to endangered species and the nation’s space program – remain without leaders to advise the White House and cabinet secretaries on science, engineering, health and technology. These officials also are responsible for overseeing the work of agency scientists and billions of dollars in spending on research, education and equipment.
The industry-friendly backgrounds and lack of science credentials of some of Trump’s choices, and the extremely slow pace of filling the rest of the vacancies, have raised questions about how the administration is handling the nation’s highest-ranking science positions. Typically, academics, longtime agency staffers or other experts in their fields fill these leadership posts.
An analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that of Trump’s 12 nominees and appointees, six have worked for the industries they would regulate or award federal contracts to. Two candidates – including Trump’s former national campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis, the president’s choice as the Department of Agriculture’s top scientist – have no scientific background.
So far, only two of Trump’s nominees for top science positions at federal agencies have been confirmed by the Senate. Eight others are awaiting a vote. The eventual nominees for all 32 vacant posts would require confirmation, which could drag on for months.
“Staff can only go so far before they hit these empty seats,” said Cristin Dorgelo, who was chief of staff in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama. “I’m most concerned about response to emerging situations, because in those moments, leaders are key, not just for setting the direction of the agencies, but raising up the needs, concerns and gaps to the White House and Congress for attention, action and investment.”
No one has been named to permanently fill the four top science posts at the Department of the Interior, including the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting endangered species and managing about 150 million acres of public refuges and wetlands inhabited by more than 2,000 species of birds, mammals, fish and other creatures.
Also empty: top roles at NASA, which manages key climate and earth science data-gathering projects, as well as the space program, and three high-ranking science posts at the Department of Commerce, including a leader for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees fisheries management, climate and ocean research and more.
The Census Bureau, also part of the Commerce Department, has been leaderless since June, when its director resigned after a confrontation with Congress over the budget for the 2020 U.S. census. Census data are critical for guiding how and where the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on health, economic development, education and other services and determining how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Trump administration also has yet to nominate anyone to fill two undersecretary roles at the USDA that oversee the safety and quality of the nation’s food supply.
Dorgelo said she is especially concerned that vacancies at these key agencies and others, including the Health and Human Services and Defense departments, could hamper the government’s response to major crises, such as the Ebola outbreak.
When the Ebola virus showed up in the United States in 2014, input from these leaders helped the White House “identify immediate technology needs of health workers,” she said. “That led to rapid outreach to the private sector to ask for better innovations, such as the suits those workers would wear. There was a very quick response, from gap identification to creating solutions.”
Critics say the vacancies are evidence of Trump’s lack of interest in incorporating science into policy.
“This administration seems to be a bit different from everything I hear, in that they are much less interested in what the career professionals can contribute, and certainly much less interested in the underlying science that informs policy,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of The Center for Science and Democracy at the nonprofit advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists.
Trump’s cabinet secretaries “are coming in with a mandate to do something that is sometimes in opposition to the agencies they’ve been tasked to lead – to effectively hand the agency over to private interests,” he said. “So they’re not looking for science advice, because they’ve already been told what to do.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
No scientific expertise
Trump has named two people with no science background to science posts. Both are awaiting final confirmation by the Senate.
David Wright was nominated to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the five-person board responsible for regulating the nuclear power industry and ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities. He studied political science and communications in the mid-1970s and worked for 25 years in public relations, advertising and events planning before serving on South Carolina’s public utility commission.
Clovis, the administration’s nominee for the USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics, would oversee about $2 billion in annual funding for scientific research and about another $1 billion for education.
Clovis is a former professor of business administration at Iowa’s Morningside College. But prior to becoming co-chairman of Trump’s national campaign, he was better known as a right-wing political activist who – via his Sioux City talk radio show – promoted fringe conspiracy theories, including “birtherism,” which falsely claimed that Obama was born in Kenya.
Clovis also has proclaimed himself a skeptic on climate change. At the USDA, he would oversee billions of dollars of federally funded science and education on safeguarding the food supply amid rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns.
Critics say the lack of deep science backgrounds for some candidates means there would be few people in authority capable of informing politicians about an array of complex issues.
“Some positions, such as the undersecretary for research at the Department of Agriculture, benefit very much from robust science backgrounds. Ideally, you get a person who has a mix of both scientific background and experience and policy background,” Dorgelo said. “It’s not possible to hire people with that mix for all positions, but it’s important to hires in key positions, such as that one at the USDA.”
If political appointees have scientific expertise, “they’re able to have a seat at the political policymaking table to make sure science has a voice,” she said.
So far, two of the administration’s top science positions have been filled by experts: Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia’s public health commissioner, was appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Tony Tooke, a forester who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service since he was 18, was named its new chief.
Six of the Trump administration’s science nominees have close relationships with the industries they will be dealing with on behalf of the public. Their scientific experience varies.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, confirmed in May as head of the Food and Drug Administration, has worked extensively as a consultant and investor to pharmaceutical and medical firms. The FDA is the agency that reviews and approves new drugs and medical devices.
Gottlieb has served on an advisory board for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and as a venture partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm that appears to have invested in dozens of biotech, pharmaceutical and medical equipment startups. He also served as an FDA deputy commissioner under President George W. Bush.
At the Energy Department, Paul Dabbar will coordinate about $5 billion in research and development if he is confirmed as undersecretary for science. He has an undergraduate degree in marine engineering and served as an officer on a nuclear submarine. But for the past 21 years, he has focused on investment banking, working on multibillion-dollar merger and acquisition deals between energy firms as a managing director at JPMorganChase & Co. Dabbar currently sits on the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Advisory Board.
If confirmed as assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Brett Giroir will be the top public health adviser to Secretary Tom Price and be responsible for oversight of diverse public health issues, from infectious diseases and vaccinations to family planning and reproductive services.
Giroir would oversee federal protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects in clinical trials – such as those conducted by Houston-based biopharmaceutical firm ViraCyte, where he was named CEO in 2016. He also would direct 6,700 commissioned officers in the U.S. Public Health Service, a medical corps that responds to humanitarian crises, natural disasters such as hurricanes and industrial accidents in the U.S. and overseas.
Giroir’s national profile rose in 2014, when then-Texas Gov. and current Energy Secretary Rick Perry tapped him to lead the state’s Ebola response. At the time, Giroir was the CEO of the Health Science Center at Texas A&M University, spearheading public-private partnerships to tackle emerging public health threats, from chemical biowarfare to infectious pandemics. Giroir directed the science office at the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 2004 to 2008.
Ellen Lord, confirmed Aug. 1 as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, worked for more than three decades at Textron Systems, a Fortune 500 Defense Department contractor. She joined the company as a chemist in 1984, rising through the firm’s executive ranks to become president and CEO in 2012.
The undersecretary historically directs the Pentagon on how and where to spend its billions of dollars for research, development, energy and equipment. But initially, Lord will oversee a Congress-mandated split of its responsibilities into two offices. Reports suggest she will seek reappointment to the new acquisitions role that results.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, has endorsed both of the Trump administration’s nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
David Wright, an energy industry consultant, has held several positions aligned with the nuclear power industry. These include chairman of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a group of utility commissioners and industries that has advocated for a nuclear waste storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, and president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
The other commission nominee, Annie Caputo, was an executive assistant and legislative affairs manager for Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest utility and largest operator of nuclear power plants, from 1998 to 2005. She worked for a year as an engineer with Commonwealth Edison after earning an undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering in 1996. She currently is a policy aide for House and Senate Republicans on committees overseeing the industry.
Roots in conservative think tanks
Three of Trump’s science nominees have worked with the nation’s leading conservative think tanks.
Gottlieb was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute when he was confirmed as head of the FDA. The institute advocates for free enterprise and limited government authority. One of its campaigns is to overturn FDA regulations on electronic cigarettes.
Economist Stephen Parente, nominated as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, would manage Medicare and some elements of the Affordable Care Act if confirmed. He has written critical reviews of the act for the right-leaning think tank American Action Forum, including analyses of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” replacement proposal. Parente is a health economist at the University of Minnesota, where he is the Minnesota insurance industry chair of health finance.
Kevin Hassett, nominated to lead the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, was a professor at Columbia University in New York and an economic adviser for the Federal Reserve Board in the 1990s. He advised the Republican presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. He is currently the director of research for domestic policy for the American Enterprise Institute, an outspoken opponent of federal policies to combat climate change. Hassett, however, has endorsed carbon taxes as a more effective incentive to reduce greenhouse gas pollution than cap and trade.
Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists said he is worried but not surprised that there are so many science vacancies and that many of the nominees have ties to the industries they would oversee.
“There seems to be very little interest in utilizing those resources or advisory bodies. Even the external advisory bodies have really ground to a halt,” he said. “The philosophy of this administration is that the most important thing we can do is deregulate.”
This story was edited by Marla Cone and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.