In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed physicist H. Guyford Stever as the first Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Having previously advised the military during World War II, and directed the National Science Foundation for four years, Stever became the first of a long line of advisors who counseled the White House on matters of science and technology—everything from disease outbreaks to climate change to nanotechnology.
His current counterpart John Holdren, formerly a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University, has performed the same service for Barack Obama since 2009, together with a 135-person team. And in a few short months, he will hand over his duties to someone else—a new appointee who will become President-elect Donald Trump’s scientific consigliere.
Who will that person be? No one knows.
“Any enquiries I’ve made has led me to believe that the transition process isn’t yet organized,” says Neal Lane from Rice University, who acted as OSTP Director under Bill Clinton. “I think the election was a surprise to everybody, and my guess is that they’re just discovering many of these offices for the first time.”
The appointment is crucial—as close to a cabinet-level position in science and technology as exists. “It’s an easy thing to say that it’s another bureaucratic office,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “but it’s a critically important voice for the broader science community within the administration.”
The OSTP’s Director and their staff almost always work in the White House complex (with the exception of the period immediately after 9/11, when an emphasis on security forced them into an office on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue). “It's one thing to be asked something by the White House. It’s another to be in the room,” says Rosenberg. “They have the opportunity to raise issues and evidence that only a small handful of advisors have.”
During the Obama administration, the OSTP has overseen dozens, perhaps hundreds, of diverse initiatives on charting the microbiome, understanding the brain, using technology to fight sex trafficking, championing open science, and more. Much of that was grounded in Obama’s self-professed love of science, and the close relationship he fostered with Holdren. “It’s an incredibly difficult job,” says Rosenberg. “You need someone who can speak not only about their own discipline but can think very broadly, whether responding to a nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, or an outbreak of Ebola. John Holdren is very capable and has done the job for 8 years.”
But given the chaotic nature of the current transition period, it remains to be seen if the status quo will remain that way. “Someone said to me, ‘What makes you think there will even be an OSTP?’ But there must be an OSTP. It’s part of the administrative apparatus,” says Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for Advancement of Science, and a former New Jersey congressman. Indeed, the office was established by Congress, and its Director and up to four Associate Directors all have to be confirmed by the Senate. “Unless the president convinced Congress that there shouldn’t be an OSTP, there will be one,” says Lane.
But amid that certainty, there is also lots of room for variability. (Buckle up; here be acronyms.) Holdren currently wears many different hats. He’s also the president’s Science Advisor or, to quote the formal title, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. He co-chairs (with Obama) the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—a group of leading scientists and engineers who offer policy recommendations on everything from the reliability of forensic science to preparing for a biological weapons attack. And he sits on the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a group that coordinates research and development efforts across all federal agencies; it is chaired by the president and includes the vice-president and several cabinet secretaries.
So Holdren’s a busy guy. But of these jobs, only the OSTP directorship is a non-negotiable Senate-confirmed post. The rest are essentially optional, and depend on the president’s attitudes to science and willingness to continue the legacy of past offices. Trump might not convene the PCAST or the NSTC; both are established by Executive Order. He could appoint an OSTP Director and never seek advice from them.
Or, he could appoint someone entirely unlike past candidates. The post has almost always been a nationally respected scientist or engineer, with advanced degrees in their field. Given that Trump prides himself on his outsider status, perhaps all bets are off. Would the new director even have a science degree?
There is certainly no precedent for that. James Rhyne Killian came closest: He had a bachelor’s degree in management and advised Eisenhower from 1957 to 1959, before the OSTP was formally created. Still, Killian was hardly unqualified: At the time of his appointment, he had been president of MIT for nine years and had coordinated the university’s post-war defense research.
So, who next? In September 2016, Lane and colleagues produced a comprehensive guide to the next president in choosing their science advisor. It may be some time before we know if those recommendations have been heard: While Obama nominated Holdren a month before his inauguration, George W. Bush took almost a year to appoint his advisor. “What you might see before January are the names of people who look like they have the right qualifications, who are working closely with the transition team,” says Lane.
“It really does need to be a highly respected scientist,” adds Rosenberg. “Bringing in someone who doesn’t have that respect or isn’t interested in reaching out to the broader science community will be a big problem.”