After a 19-Month Vacancy, White House Taps an Academic Meteorologist to Head the OSTP

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Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president of research and professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.

by Anne Polansky
Sr. Climate Policy Analyst

This week the White House formally announced the appointment of Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, a meteorologist and atmospheric research scientist at the University of Oklahoma, to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The position has laid vacant for nearly 19 months and most of the staff left long ago. Traditionally, the OSTP Director also doubles as the President’s Science Advisor, but the latter role wasn’t mentioned in the announcement. It’s a critically important position in this day and age: OSTP’s job is to help steer cutting-edge scientific research and technology development in the federal government. The director of the OSTP provides critical, expert advice and guidance to the President on complex scientific and technological matters with significant ramifications for the economy, international competitiveness and trade, national security, public health and safety, energy production, environmental protection, global climate change, and more.

The presidential science advisor position goes back to the 1950s when Vannevar Bush was tapped to serve Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The surprise announcement came just when many in the scientific community had resigned themselves to the notion that the OSTP spot would remain vacant throughout the entire four-year term. It had already been a year and a half since President Trump was sworn into office, or precisely 533 days (for those who were counting, and many were); even longer if you consider that several presidents have made this appointment before taking office.

The news came as an unexpected, pleasant surprise.
The official White House announcement, which included two other new appointments, was quietly posted on whitehouse.gov, sometime later in the day on July 31, unaccompanied by a press conference or presidential remarks. The other appointments included key positions at the Department of State and the Transportation Department. A fourth announcement conveys an intent to appoint a new member to the American Battle Monuments Commission. It is almost as if “not much to see here” is the intended underlying message.

The news stunned everyone who is concerned about science, presidential science advice, and the record-breaking prolonged vacancy at OSTP. Across the board, the news has been met with pleasant surprise and a sense of relief.

Droegemeier is no stranger to politics, governance, and science-based policy-making. He will be leaving his dual roles at the University of Oklahoma as V.P. for Research and Regents’ Professor of Meteorology, as well has his position as Cabinet Secretary of Science and Technology for the state of Oklahoma.

The biographical sketch in the White House announcement reads as follows:

He co-founded and directed the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms and the NSF Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere. Dr. Droegemeier served two six-year terms (four years as Vice Chairman) on the National Science Board, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He earned his B.S. in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and M.S. and Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Droegemeier is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“My initial reaction is, wow, they found someone,” remarked Kei Koizumi, who served as assistant director under president Barack Obama. Prominent scientists across the nation are publicly expressing approval for the choice, praise for Droegemeier’s capabilities and track record, and new optimism for federal scientific research as a whole.

Former OSTP Director and two-term White House Science Advisor to President Obama, John Holdren, applauded the choice and encouraged Droegemeier to work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to restore and raise funding levels for key science programs that have suffered harsh budget cuts under this administration. “I think he is a very solid choice,” Holdren told the Washington Post, adding, “He’s been a serious climate scientist and he’s been a serious science adviser to people in positions of influence.” Speaking to Science Magazine, Holdren called Droegemeier “a very good pick” who will “be energetic in defending the R&D budget and climate change research in particular.”

Ever since the Trump-Pence ticket won the election, the attack on science from our President and many elected officials in the White House and the cabinet has been brutal and unrelenting. Budgets have been slashed, scientists have been censored and kept from speaking freely about their work, and researchers have been demoted and treated like second-class citizens. People are hoping this new development might help to turn things around.

Many are hopeful and optimistic; we are skeptical and cautiously pessimistic.
Will the new OSTP leader be able to exert true science and technology leadership in this administration? Will he be able to give science a better name within the ranks of this White House? Will federal R&D budgets be rescued under Droegemeier’s tenure, however long it may last? Only time will tell. Of course, the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections will play a decisive role in how the government appropriates money for scientific research across a couple dozen agencies, and it is still not clear whether the House or Senate (or both) will flip, placing Democrats in the majority.

Will Droegemeier at the helm of OSTP come to resemble the likes of highly regarded past science advisors like John Holdren, Jack Gibbons, or Neil Lane? Or will he go more the way of John H. Marburger III, who served for two terms under President George W. Bush and was subject to harsh criticism from his peers, including that of CSPW founder and G.W. Bush whistleblower Rick Piltz. When Marburger passed away in July 2011, Piltz described the way Dr. Marburger tenuously managed his position under the control of the Bush-Cheney White House. His words could easily serve as a prediction for how things are likely to go with Dr. Droegemeier:

As far back as 2002, it appeared to me that, when questioned about global warming, Dr. Marburger would respond like someone who was looking over his shoulder in deference to Bush-Cheney political sensitivities on this issue. His responses to questions always pulled back from a straightforward use of IPCC language on anthropogenic climate change, to keep his formulations closer to the manufactured sense of scientific uncertainty that characterized Bush administration officials and aligned them with the slant of the global warming disinformation campaign.

I think Marburger lost credibility with non-global-warming-deniers on the Hill and with the science community by giving the impression that, when pressed on global warming, he was speaking more as a representative of Bush-Cheney than as a true intellectually independent scientist. He may have believed that he was maintaining his integrity by not stating his own personal views, but this raised the ubiquitous Washington question: when does institutional authority deference turn into professionally inappropriate complicity? Food for thought on the proper role of the science adviser.

It’s difficult to imagine that the new OSTP director will be able to advise this White House so effectively and persuasively that we will see a complete reversal of direction in the nation’s approach to tough issues like climate change and other serious problems that demand tremendous scientific prowess. Can we imagine a scenario in which Droegemeier, talented meteorologist and atmospheric scientist, talks truth to power, challenges coal-loving Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry or Interior Department Sec. Ryan Zinke? Or stands up to President Trump or VP Mike Pence, for that matter?

The overall response to climate change must be commensurate with the threat, and the cabal in power at the moment will have little patience with a lecture on anomalous weather patterns. It is not even clear how long he will be allowed to retain his office, given the sky-high turnover rate. Those who are rallying around him and this appointment are justifiably happy to see any movement in a positive direction, however modest. Droegemeier is being counted on to whip back into shape a very disheveled and neglected apparatus. Yes, our national approach to S&T may improve some, and someone leading OSTP is much preferable to no one leading OSTP.

However, mark our words:

Dr. Droegemeier will come to Washington, but he may not be staying long; and, even if he does, he probably won’t end up making much of a difference in building support for robust climate change science or for the underpinnings of public policies essential for avoiding climate catastrophe.

That said, we are as hopeful as anyone that we will be proven wrong.

Regarding this appointment, we have questions.
First, why now?
Droegemeier was being considered for OSTP as far back as March of this year, according to the Washington Post, but no action was taken until months later. What caused the delay? The OSTP spot had already been vacant for nearly half of this presidential term. By the time he is confirmed by the Senate, moves to Washington, settles in, hires staff, and really gets going, we will already be approaching the 2020 elections. The long delay in making a choice for this appointment was itself starting to make the news. On July 27, just three days before the White House announcement, the Washington Post published an article entitled, “Trump desperately needs a science adviser, experts say. He just doubled the record for time without one.” The Trump administration – now famous for departing from precedents, breaking records, and disregarding the norm – had doubled the length of time that any modern president had gone without a science adviser. Second in place on this list of disgrace is President George W. Bush, who let the post go vacant for nine months and four days, to be exact. By contrast, Presidents Obama, Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton all selected a science advisor before assuming office.

Second, why him?
What was the decision-making process that led to this choice and who was doing the deciding? It’s difficult to believe POTUS himself had a hand in it, given his aversion to scientific facts (and even plain old, regular facts). So what was the pathway that brought us here? It all seems rather odd, especially since this choice actually has the appropriate and relevant credentials for the job, unlike most of President Trump’s other picks. It’s also possible that the Trump White House favored Droegemeier because he came out in strong support for Trump’s pick to head NASA, Jim Bridenstine, who was serving as a US Congressman from Oklahoma at the time. Though, White House staff may have missed Droegemeier’s comments about Bridenstine’s approach to climate science at the space agency. “He won’t come in and say we’re going to discontinue climate financing and take earth science and trash it,” Droegemeier predicted in an interview. “He absolutely believes the planet is warming, that [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, and that it contributes to warming,” he added – which, in today’s political environment very well could have disqualified him from consideration.

The White House could just as easily have selected OSTP’s current Acting Director, former Deputy Assistant Michael Kratsios, a 31-year-old Princeton graduate who majored in politics. It would be more Trumpian to do so. After all, Kratsios has been holding down the fort all this time, doing god-knows-what (we don’t actually know because there’s no transparency), and acting as staff director for what can safely be called a skeleton crew when compared with the robust staff support characteristic of previous administrations. No one has accurate numbers, but the general sense is that OSTP staff size following the 2016 election dropped from 135 staffers to 45 (see CBS report, Donald Trump’s science office is a ghost town).

Third, why did he decide to take the job?
When Bill Gates visited the White House last March to urge President Trump to appoint someone for OSTP, Trump offered the position to Gates on the spot. What was Gates’ response? No thank you, Mr. President, “it’s not a good use of my time.” No doubt there are many other competent candidates who would not come near the White House with a 10-foot pole. Why would they? The common wisdom around town is that no one in their right mind would, at this point, willfully sign up as a full-time employee in this scandal-laden, chaos-driven, high turn-over, psychologically troubled West Wing. So, we must ask, what was Droegemeier’s thought process in taking the job? (And, who, by the way, offered it to him?) What are his motives? What does he think he can achieve at OSTP, and why isn’t he afraid he’ll get canned in short order, for instance should he accidentally utter something forbidden about all the weird weather we’re having?

What difference will this new appointment make?
We’re also pessimistic about the ability of this appointment to lead to any sort of meaningful and measurable improvement given the administration’s aversion to all things climate change. Even though some have described Droegemeier as being willing and able to talk truth to power, his history and professional biography suggest that he is someone who lays relatively low and avoids controversy or confrontation, given that there seems to be none in his record.

So, he’s likely to stay in the shadows, engage himself in a variety of scientific frontiers such as manned space travel and artificial intelligence, and stay out of President Trump’s way. That is, if he’s smart. He must know that to do otherwise would be to set himself up for the White House chopping block, so heavily used now that it probably needs replacing. But, as the President is so fond of saying, we will have to “wait and see what happens.”

We’ve already gotten a glimpse at the level of White House backing we can expect for the new OSTP Director. The White House neither issued a press release about this important post, nor were any public remarks made by the President or any White House official. Some caring White House staffer took it upon him or herself to place a call to the press, albeit anonymously, knowing how much the President hates leakers. The call evidently resulted in the July 31 Washington Post piece announcing the nomination: “Trump intends to nominate extreme-weather expert for top White House science and tech role.” Note the wording in the heading, using the phrase “extreme weather” instead of “climate change,” demonstrating the political baggage of the so-called “double-C word.” For this, we can thank the dogged determination and persistence of a small army of climate deniers who keep the global warming denial machine oiled and running, decade after decade. So many now are brainwashed, tricked into believing that climate change isn’t real, and even if it is, it’s no biggie.

We desperately need good science and good decisions based on solid scientific evidence.
Weather patterns are getting so chaotic and precarious that it’s almost as if climate change impacts are screaming out at us for attention. Extreme weather is happening all around us, violent “natural disasters” are occurring with frightening frequency and severity across the US and around the world. Just because some people can’t draw connections between fossil fuel use and global warming, global warming and climate change, climate change and extreme weather, that does not change the harsh reality. Within the past week we’ve seen wildfires so fierce and powerful that they are defying the best firefighting techniques, burning entire swaths of Southern California to the ground, leaving behind nothing but black and gray ash. Everything west of the Mississippi is now subject to triple-digit temperatures and heat waves that can and do cause heat stroke. Powerful hurricanes are ripping through entire regions, knocking down trees, heaving cars into the air, and tumbling buildings. Our coastlines are being decimated by rising sea levels, farmers are facing severe bouts of drought, and meteorologists are having a tougher and tougher time predicting the weather in this increasingly chaotic climate system.

The desperate need for strong leadership to deal with this crisis was articulated by National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president Marcia McNutt, who said: “In particular, our nation is facing mounting costs from weather-related disasters, including more severe hurricanes, floods, droughts, and forest fires. Having a distinguished atmospheric scientist advising the President is timely and a great choice.” We certainly hope so.

The long drought at OSTP was lamented by several members of Congress who wrote letters to President Trump urging him to appoint an OSTP director. It did not escape them that in previous administrations the OSTP played a central role in disaster response and mitigation. Their letters noted that, at a critical time, the OSTP lacked key leaders when the US was hit with Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria in 2017. “Scientific and technical input would also have contributed to decisions around climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea’s nuclear program — areas where key decisions have been made over the past nine months in absence of a science adviser and other officials,” one letter said. It’s also the science advisor’s role to oversee and help to plan and propose federal research budget levels, and the Trump White House has been taking a hatchet to science funding.

It is not just the issue of climate change and its dangerous consequences that demand scientific study. Past science advisors have reliably given expert advice and guidance when the nation has been confronted with serious crises, such as communicable disease outbreaks, major earthquakes, volcanoes, potential biological weapons attacks, and hacking.

Droegemeier also has the support of the usual suspects in the climate-denier club.
Another reason Droegemeier was palatable to the Trump White House may be because climate deniers seem to like him. It could be because it’s almost impossible to find the words “climate change” in any of his works. He’s been researching and publishing peer-reviewed papers discussing complex atmospheric dynamics and meteorological phenomena for decades, and has developed top expert-level understanding of both natural and anomalous global weather patterns. We could find no evidence or indication that he calls himself a climate scientist. One could postulate that his semantics are intentional and an attempt to be apolitical, but this discrepancy certainly is confusing. For example, NAS president Marcia McNutt indicated that she really has no idea what Droegemeier’s personal views are on climate science, but nonetheless praised him as an atmospheric scientist who “will understand these weather-related problems are connected to the climate system as well, and weather and climate are intricately connected.” She added, “It’s clear that Droegemeier also gets the precarious politics of all this.” Perhaps he is just that politically astute. However, McNutt warned that Droegemeier, “will have to walk a very careful line given the president’s very strong views on this, but we hope he still can be a measured influence with the administration.” You know what they say, hope springs eternal.

Droegemeier has political support from the far right, as evidenced by the lavish praise former Trump transition team leader Myron Ebell expressed in The Daily Caller. “He appears to be a solid choice with an unusually wide range of relevant experience—scientist, university administrator, political appointee, served on boards and commissions,” Ebell said. “He looks to be a Republican and comfortable with conservatives (who after all are much more supportive of sound science than the left), but not a political lightning rod, which is probably a good thing,” he wrote in an email. (Ebell’s cheap dig regarding which political party is more about sound science than the other did not go past us.)

Other so-called “skeptics” also appear to be on board. Judith Curry, who has a background in climate science but now shoots down scientific theories regarding global warming and its consequences, is also reported to be pleased with the choice. Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who is known for his controversial views on climate change and who worked alongside Droegemeier in the 1990s, commented, “He combines a lot of qualities in somebody you’d like to see in public service. He is, in the most positive way, a nerdy meteorologist who loved working on weather technology. And he also has a knack for administration and working his way around the system.”

Well, we can cross our fingers and hope. We wish him, and us, the best of luck.

 

CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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