For decades, the meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier has been immersed in the study of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and other extreme weather. Now he looks set to enter the unpredictable and stormy world of the Trump administration as its top scientific consigliere. As The Washington Post reported, the president has tapped Droegemeier to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), an office that has advised past presidents on everything from Ebola outbreaks to nuclear meltdowns.
The directorship is as close to a Cabinet-level position in science and technology as there is. It has also gone unfilled for the 19 months since Donald Trump took office—an unprecedentedly long time in the OSTP’s 42-year history. For comparison, George W. Bush set the previous record for the longest delay when he took four months to choose his nominee, while Barack Obama made his pick a month before his inauguration.
Though late, Droegemeier’s nomination comes as a rare spot of welcome news for the scientific community. Many of Trump’s choices to lead or advise scientific agencies have been criticized either for lacking relevant qualifications, or for being diametrically opposed to the organization they were tapped to run.
By contrast, Droegemeier has impeccable scientific credentials. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” says J. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist at the University of Georgia. “Up to this point, many of the appointments on the science side have been odd, but Kelvin is solid on all grounds. He is very well respected in our field and has spent a career teaching the fundamentals of climate science.”
Having been at the University of Oklahoma for 33 years, Droegemeier co-founded the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, or CAPS, in 1989, at a time when few scientists believed that storm-scale weather could be accurately forecasted. CAPS showed otherwise. Its prediction system was the first to calculate the location and structure of storms several hours in advance. It’s now used around the world.
Droegemeier’s expertise will be useful, since the United States has just faced its costliest year of extreme-weather events, with wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters building up a price tag of $306 billion. “His atmospheric-science background is key to understanding and estimating growing costs of weather and climate events,” says Rosina Bierbaum, a former OSTP member who now holds appointments at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. She notes that a report that Droegemeier chaired, in which the words weather and climate are frequently used together, “is indicative of how Kelvin thinks—weather and climate are a continuum.”
Moreover, his scientific clout is paired with deep political experience. Under both Bush and Obama, he sat on the National Science Board, which sets the policies of the National Science Foundation and provides counsel to both the president and Congress; he acted as vice chair of that board from 2014 to 2017. He has also acted as the secretary of science and technology for Oklahoma’s governor.
“He is an excellent scientist, communicator, and public servant, and therefore a superb choice to be the next director of OSTP,” says Kei Koizumi, who was part of the office during the Obama era and has worked with Droegemeier before. “He’ll be able to navigate the Washington policy community and the U.S. science community. OSTP will benefit from having an inspiring leader at the helm.”
“He is an outstanding choice,” says Robin Tanamachi, an atmospheric scientist at Purdue University who studied under Droegemeier in graduate school and later worked with him on several committes. “He consistently exhibited encyclopedic knowledge of the state of meteorological science and the frontiers of research, and a surprising level of detail about individual projects both inside and outside his immediate working groups.”
There is one dark cloud to this silver lining: Many OSTP directors have acted as a science adviser to the president, but that’s not a formally mandated part of the role. The physicist John Holdren, who last held the position, had a direct line to Obama because of the latter’s keen interest in science. Trump, however, could conceivably appoint Droegemeier and never seek advice from him.
Even then, the OSTP would benefit from strong leadership. If confirmed by the Senate, Droegemeier will take charge of a greatly diminished office that, in Holdren’s day, had a staff of 135 and oversaw hundreds of initiatives, from charting the microbiome to understanding the brain. Currently, the office has just around 50 employees; under the interim leader Michael Kratsios, the deputy chief technology officer who joined the White House after working for Peter Thiel, it has mostly focused its attention on emerging technologies.
Droegemeier will also take over the office at a time when the scientific community could use a staunch advocate in the White House. In two successive budgets, Trump has proposed significant cuts to the budgets of various scientific agencies. Droegemeier’s views on such cuts are clear: In 2017, he co-authored an op-ed in The Des Moines Register in which he bemoaned the decline in federal funding for basic scientific research. “Our country is losing ground rapidly to other nations,” he wrote, and “we risk losing an entire generation of researchers … when we need them most.”
“Balanced, predictable and stable funding,” he added, “is essential for the United States to remain a world leader in research and a translator of research outcomes into practical products and services that benefit all of our citizens.” It remains to be seen if he can successfully make that case in the president’s ear.
Roger Wakimoto, the president of the American Meteorological Society, is optimistic, having known Droegemeier for more than 35 years. “Kelvin is adept at working with both sides of the aisle and has often been the voice of reason with indisputable and comprehensive facts at congressional hearings and other venues,” Wakimoto says. “I give him my unqualified support.”
“Perhaps his biggest challenge, if confirmed by the Senate, may be moving from the relative quiet of Norman, Oklahoma, to the 24/7, nonstop environment that characterizes Washington D.C.,” Wakimoto adds.