February 14, 2017

Transition, Nominations, and the State of Science

Posted by cbunge

Way to go science supporters! Our petition to “Bring Science to the White House” has officially reached 10,000 signatures! The petition urges President Trump to appoint a Scientific Advisor with a strong scientific background who understands the rigorous scientific method, the need for evidence-based science, the value of scientific research in shaping America’s future, and who can leverage the collaborative nature of the scientific community. We at AGU want to thank you for amplifying the voice of the scientific community to highlight the value of science

However, the Scientific Advisor is not the only position in Trump’s Administration who will have an impact on science.  In the past few weeks, there have been several nomination hearings for potential cabinet members, many of whom will oversee scientific agencies. If you haven’t had a chance to watch every hearing in its entirety, don’t worry! In this Bridge post, we’ll look at what nominees have been saying about federal agencies that deal with Earth and space science, and what the transition process means for science:


  • Mick Mulvaney (R-SC-5), nominated to be the Director of Office of Management and Budget, claimed during his confirmation hearing that he “supports the Holman rule in some circumstances.” The Holman rule allows Congress to modify individual federal employee salaries down to $1. Rep. Mulvaney also stated that he was not aware of the climate questionnaire sent to DOE employees in December. When asked if he accepted that climate change was caused by human activity, Rep. Mulvaney replied “I recognize the fact that there is some science that would indicate that … I am not yet convinced that it is a direct correlation between manmade activity and a change in the climate, which I do believe is real.” Later in the hearing, Rep. Mulvaney stated that he believes that “there is a proper role for the federal government in research,” particularly in areas where the private sector is not likely to support research.
  • Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Energy, stated, “I am a major proponent of maintaining American leadership in the area of scientific inquiry. I support the academic and government mission of basic research, even when it will not yield benefits for a generation. Our scientists and labs are the envy of the world. I look forward to visiting our national labs this year, if confirmed, and learning more about the unique work they are doing. I have a long record of aggressively courting leading scientific minds to bring innovation and job creation to my home state. On climate change, Perry did admit he thinks that the climate is changing, saying “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs.” Finally, Perry expressed regret over vowing to eliminate the DOE 5 years ago, stating “after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”
  • Investor Wilbur Ross, nominee for Secretary of Commerce, answered several questions about scientific integrity at NOAA. After Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked if Mr. Ross would uphold NOAA’s current scientific integrity policy, Ross responded “I believe that science is science and scientists should perform science. I haven’t studied the intricate details, frankly, of that document, so I can’t make a formal commitment to it. But as to the general concept of scientists doing the science, I’m totally in support of that.” Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) also questioned if Mr. Ross believed that NOAA scientists need permission to share their expertise with the public and media. Ross answered, “I support the dissemination of valid information to the public. I don’t think that valid information should be concealed, and in general, I have great respect for the scientific quality of NOAA.”
  • Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominee for EPA Administrator, said human activity influences climate change, a break from previous statements on the topic. “The climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner,” stated Mr. Pruitt. However, Mr. Pruitt called into question climate science when he stated, “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate.” Additionally, Mr. Pruitt confirmed that he would not overturn the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding that linked carbon emissions to public health risks, stating “it is there, and it needs to be enforced and respected. There is nothing that I know that would cause it to be reviewed.”
  • Ryan Zinke (R-MT-At Large), nominee for Secretary of the Interior, stated that climate change was not a hoax, and that he would listen to scientists from USGS on climate issues. When questioned by Senator Debbie Stabenow if he would “advocate for funding levels that ensure the availability and exchange of critical scientific information without regard for political or philosophical ideology,” Rep. Zinke responded, “Yes, I will, because management decisions should be based on objective science.” However, Rep. Zinke declined to stand by a letter he signed in 2010 stating that climate change is a threat to national security. He reiterated that he was not “an expert” and that there was “no model today that can predict tomorrow… we need objective science to figure a model out.”

While each of these candidates have undergone their nomination hearings and have been approved by the congressional committee of jurisdiction, each nominee must still be considered by the entire Senate.  To be confirmed, nominees need to win a simple majority vote (51 votes) on the Senate floor. Senators are not able to use the filibuster to prevent a cabinet nominee’s confirmation.

So, how do these nominees affect science? The chart below is a sample chain of command for an agency scientist. The positions in red are political appointees, and the President makes between 1000 and 1400 of these appointments to fill out all the political positions in all the agencies. Sometimes that task isn’t completed for several months. This is typical for newly elected presidents, but the longer it takes to fill critical positions, the less agencies will be able to operate at full capacity.

In the coming weeks, as votes are held for President Trump’s nominations, what can scientists do? If you have comments about specific nominees, contact your legislators about your concerns. Check out AGU’s toolkits for instructions on calling, writing, or meeting with your Members of Congress and sign up for Science Policy Alerts to stay up to date on science policy issues.