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Trump Lags Predecessors in Naming Science Agency Leaders

AUG 23, 2017
To date, President Trump has retained the directors of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, but has not appointed a science advisor or nominated heads for most of the federal science agencies. This pace puts him behind his predecessors, who had completed most of these appointments by the summers of their first years in office.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

By late summer during their first years in office, all presidents in recent history had completed most of their appointments to leadership positions in the federal government’s science agencies. President Trump, however, has been making his appointments at a slower pace across the board than his predecessors, leaving most science agencies with career employees still in charge. Although these acting officials have the experience to perform their agencies’ essential administrative duties, they generally do not undertake major changes in policy.

This bulletin reviews the history of selected key appointments dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s administration to illustrate the degree to which the Trump administration is in and out of step with precedent.

This chart displays the length of time that new presidents have taken to announce their intent to nominate their selections for key science agency positions.

This chart shows the length of time that new presidents have taken to announce their intent to nominate their selections for key science agency positions. The position titles listed are the current titles. For the details underlying this chart, please see the table at the end of this bulletin.

New presidents typically quick to name science advisors

Since Congress established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1976, new presidents have tended to move quickly to appoint a director who has always doubled as the president’s science advisor. Until now, the latest a new president announced his selection for OSTP director was President George W. Bush’s announcement of John Marburger on June 25, 2001. Trump interviewed two candidates in the early days of his administration, but has so far made no selection.

The White House has also usually called on the advice of a body of independent experts in science and technology. Reagan’s science advisor, Jay Keyworth, named a White House Science Council that reported to him in February 1982. In January 1990, President George H. W. Bush established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which reports directly to the president. President Bill Clinton did not choose to retain the PCAST apparatus until November 1993, following a governance study called the National Performance Review, and he did not announce PCAST’s new membership until August 1994.

After Clinton, establishing a PCAST became a more routine part of a new administration’s work. George W. Bush named PCAST co-chair Floyd Kvamme in March 2001, three months before naming Marburger as his science advisor. Bush waited until that December, though, to announce the full PCAST membership. President Barack Obama named PCAST co-chairs Harold Varmus and Eric Lander in December 2008, alongside his science advisor John Holdren. The full membership followed in April 2009. There has so far been no word on when, or even whether, Trump intends to establish a PCAST for his administration.

Trump keeping NIH and NSF leaders in place

One of the few decisions that the Trump administration has made in science leadership is to retain Francis Collins, an Obama appointee, as NIH director.

Although it is now unusual for NIH directors to serve multiple presidents, until the 1980s it was common. Donald Fredrickson, who was originally appointed by President Gerald Ford, stayed through the Carter and Reagan transitions before resigning six months into Reagan’s first term. He later recalled he remained long enough to demonstrate NIH’s independence. The next two directors, James Wyngaarden and Bernadine Healy, were both surprised to learn that the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations expected to make their own appointments.

The next two directors, Varmus and Elias Zerhouni, stepped down prior to the end of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, leaving the position open for the next president to fill. Only Clinton and Obama, though, have treated the position as part of the ordinary slate of initial appointments, naming their nominees, Varmus and Collins, during the summers of their first years. NIH was actually without an appointed director for over two years — during a period when its budget was doubling — before Bush announced his selection of Zerhouni in March 2002.

Unlike the NIH director, the National Science Foundation director, who serves a six-year term, has remained essentially unaffected by turnover at the White House. In recent decades, only Walter Massey has stepped down at the beginning of a new administration, and he did so in April 1993 because he accepted a senior position with the University of California system. Trump has followed the general tradition, leaving in place France Córdova, whom Obama nominated in 2013.

In the past several years, there have been proposals to set a similar, 10-year term for NASA’s administrator. The objective is to provide continuity at the agency such as that provided by Daniel Goldin, who was appointed by George H. W. Bush and stepped down early in George W. Bush’s first term. However, the idea has not gained traction and, Goldin excepted, the NASA administrator has remained a more traditional political appointment.

Past political appointments mostly made by summer

As with the NIH director, a number of presidentially appointed positions at science agencies only began to turn over with new presidential administrations in recent decades. These include the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Other positions, such as the administrators of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the heads of R&D at the Energy and Defense Departments, have always been subject to turnover with a new administration.

Although all these positions are now understood to be “political” appointments, they have generally not been considered political in the sense that the appointees are political partisans. Rather, the expectation is that they will work with White House staff to advance a set of priorities for policy and management. And, with some exceptions, new presidents have exercised their prerogative to make these appointments, and have done so quickly.

George H. W. Bush was somewhat unusual in that he took over from a president from the same party. Thus, he retained a number of President Reagan’s science-related appointees for some months before naming his own. He kept Dallas Peck, Reagan’s USGS director, throughout his presidency. However, Bush was also unusual in that he left the NIH without an appointed director for over two years at the beginning of his term, and he left the DOE Office of Energy Research (what is now the Office of Science) without one for over a year after Reagan appointee Robert Hunter, Jr. resigned in October 1989.*

New presidents have occasionally chosen to leave in place appointments made by presidents of the opposing party. Clinton retained Goldin as NASA administrator, George W. Bush retained Charles Groat as USGS director, and now Trump has retained Collins as NIH director. Sometimes, though, incumbents’ hopes to stay on have been dashed. William Happer was dismissed as director of the Office of Energy Research after clashing with Vice President Al Gore over the issue of ozone depletion. USGS Director Mark Myers hoped to stay on under Obama, but Obama chose to appoint his own director, Marcia McNutt, instead.

Trump reverts to non-scientist leadership at DOE

Separate from the question of the pace of Trump’s appointments is the issue of whether he is appointing individuals with sufficient scientific expertise to agency leadership positions. In particular, Trump appears to be reversing a trend in recent decades that raised the place of scientists within DOE.

Traditionally, the director of the Office of Energy Research was the highest scientific position at DOE. However, MIT physicist and energy policy expert Ernest Moniz held the higher position of under secretary of energy from 1997 to 2001. Then, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a new position of under secretary for science, which has always been held by scientists until Trump’s appointment of Paul Dabbar this year. Dabbar, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, has an undergraduate degree in marine engineering but has spent most of his career in energy sector finance.

Throughout the history of DOE, the energy secretary has traditionally come from a political rather than scientific background. In 2004, George W. Bush broke somewhat with that tradition in appointing Samuel Bodman, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering but worked in finance and served as deputy secretary at the Treasury and Commerce Departments before moving to DOE. In 2009, Obama appointed Stanford University physicist Steven Chu energy secretary, and then appointed Moniz to the position in 2013. Trump’s selection of former Texas Governor Rick Perry has returned the position to its political roots.

One of Trump’s other recent selections, Sam Clovis as under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics — otherwise known as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist — has drawn severe criticism in large part because Clovis does not have a scientific background. Clovis has also come under fire for his rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and for homophobic remarks he made as a talk radio show host. He has not yet had his Senate confirmation hearing.

Some science appointments could come soon

Although Trump has to date made few new appointments to science leadership positions in government, there have been suggestions that some could be on the horizon. Most notably, reports recently emerged that Trump has selected Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to serve as NASA administrator and that an announcement will come in September.** There have also been rumors about other positions, such as that AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers will be selected as NOAA administrator.

Please consult FYI’s Federal Science Leadership Tracker to keep up to date with appointments and the confirmation process.

Notes

*Update: Originally, this paragraph indicated that the DOE Office of Energy Research was without a director at the beginning of Bush’s term.

**Update: NASA announced on Sept. 1 that Trump has indeed chosen Bridenstine as his nominee for NASA administrator.

White House OSTP Director

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Obama

John Holdren

12/20/2008

03/19/2009

Bush

John Marburger

06/25/2001

10/23/2001

Clinton

Neal Lane

02/13/1998

07/31/1998

Clinton

John Gibbons

12/24/1992

01/28/1993

Bush Sr.

David Allan Bromley

04/21/1989

08/3/1989

Reagan

William Graham

06/03/1986

10/1/1986

Reagan

George Keyworth

05/19/1981

07/24/1981

DOE Office of Science Director (2000 - Present)

DOE Office of Energy Research Director (1977 - 1999)

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Obama

Cherry Murray

08/05/2015

12/10/2015

Obama

Marc Kastner

11/14/2013

N/A

Obama

William Brinkman

04/17/2009

06/19/2009

Bush

Raymond Orbach

12/11/2001

03/04/2002

Clinton

Mildred Dresselhaus

?

07/26/2000

Clinton

Martha Krebs

07/15/1993

11/11/1993

Bush Sr.

William Happer, Jr.

?

08/02/1991

Reagan

Robert Hunter, Jr.

06/23/1987

08/11/1988

Reagan

Alvin Trivelpiece

06/09/1981

07/27/1981

NSF Director

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Obama

France Córdova

07/31/2013

03/12/2014

Obama

Subra Suresh

06/03/2010

09/29/2010

Bush

Arden Bement, Jr.

09/15/2004

11/21/2004

Clinton

Rita Colwell

02/13/1998

05/22/1998

Neal Lane

07/13/1993

10/07/1993

Bush Sr.

Walter Massey

09/14/1990

02/21/1991

Reagan

Erich Bloch

06/06/1984

08/06/1984

Reagan

Edward Knapp

11/15/1982

04/15/1983

NIH Director

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Obama

Francis Collins

07/08/2009

08/07/2009

Bush

Elias Zerhouni

03/26/2002

05/02/2002

Clinton

Harold Varmus

08/03/1993

11/20/1993

Bush Sr.

Bernadine Healy

01/11/1991

03/21/1991

Reagan

James Wyngaarden

02/19/1982

04/27/1982

NASA Administrator

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Trump

Jim Bridenstine

09/01/2017

Obama

Charles Bolden

05/23/2009

07/15/2009

Bush

Michael Griffin

03/11/2005

04/13/2005

Bush

Sean O’Keefe

11/15/2001

12/20/2001

Bush Sr.

Dan Goldin

03/12/1992

03/31/1992

Bush Sr.

Richard Truly

04/12/1989

06/23/1989

Reagan

James Fletcher

03/06/1986

05/06/1986

Reagan

James Beggs

04/23/1981

06/26/1981

DOD Assistant Secretary for Research & Engineering (2011 - Present)

DOD Director of Research & Engineering (1986 - 2011)

DOD Under Secretary for Research & Engineering (1977 - 1986)

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Trump

Michael Griffin

10/27/2017

Obama

Stephen Welby

03/18/2015

12/14/2015

Obama

Zachary Lemnios

05/12/2009

06/19/2009

Bush

John Young

07/28/2005

10/28/2005

Bush

Ronald Sega

06/07/2001

08/03/2001

Clinton

Hans Mark

05/04/1998

06/09/1998

Clinton

Anita Jones

03/31/1993

05/28/1993

Bush Sr.

Victor Reis

10/02/1991

11/27/1991

Bush Sr.

Charles Herzfeld

01/24/1990

03/09/1990

Reagan

Robert Duncan

10/02/1987

12/17/1987

Reagan

Donald Hicks

06/24/1985

07/31/1985

Reagan

Richard DeLauer

03/03/1981

05/06/1981

NOAA Administrator

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Trump

Barry Myers

10/11/2017

Obama

Kathryn Sullivan

08/01/2013

03/06/2014

Obama

Jane Lubchenco

12/20/2008

03/19/2009

Bush

Conrad Lautenbacher

09/19/2001

11/30/2001

Clinton

D. James Baker

02/12/1993

05/28/1993

Bush Sr.

John Knauss

07/19/1989

08/03/1989

Reagan

William Evans

02/11/1988

03/31/1988

Reagan

Anthony Calio

07/17/1985

10/04/1985

Reagan

John Byrne

04/17/1981

06/10/1981

NIST Director

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Trump

Walter Copan

9/12/2017

10/5/2017

Obama

Willie May

07/24/2014

05/04/2015

Obama

Patrick Gallagher

09/10/2009

11/05/2009

Bush

William Jeffrey

05/24/2005

07/22/2005

Bush

Arden Bement, Jr.

08/16/2001

11/30/2001

Clinton

Raymond Kammer

09/04/1997

11/09/1997

Clinton

Arati Prabhakar

03/25/1993

05/28/1993

Bush Sr.

John Lyons

11/17/1989

02/08/1990

Carter/Reagan

Ernest Ambler

11/10/1977

02/01/1978

USGS Director

Administration

Name

Announcement Date

Confirmation Date

Obama

Suzette Kimball

01/09/2014

12/18/2015

Obama

Marcia McNutt

07/09/2009

10/21/2009

Bush

Mark Myers

05/03/2006

09/15/2006

Clinton

Charles Groat

07/30/1998

10/21/1998

Clinton

Gordon Eaton

01/05/1994

02/24/1994

Reagan

Dallas Lynn Peck

06/09/1981

09/18/1981

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