Sometimes, some strange things happen and yet somehow just make perfect sense. Point in case: The science division of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is now completely unstaffed. This is the latest event in what can only be classed as a political purge of scientists in the US.

Science at the White House

This illustration from the US Defense Department leaves little more than a bittersweet taste now. Credits: Jessica L. Tozer.

No one can reasonably expect the President of any country to be perfectly knowledgeable about all the relevant topics he must attend to. That’s why one of the most important skills (and duties) of any leader is knowing how to surround himself with capable people who brief him on everything he needs to know.

Staying briefed on science is perhaps particularly difficult. Not only is science developing at a staggering pace nowadays, but most heads of state have absolutely zero in the way of scientific background (with the notable exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a PhD in physical chemistry). Most of them come from a political, law, or business background and there’s understandably a lot of blanks to fill in.

In this sense, the OSTP was a valuable addition to the White House staff. In 1976, Congress established the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to provide the President (and others) advice on “the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, the environment, and the technological recovery and use of resources, among other topics.” The need for such a department became evident in 1973 when instead of appointing a new Science Advisor for the President’s Science Advisory Committee, President Richard Nixon just dissolved the committee. Not having a scientific panel to constantly brief and advise the President seems like a big mistake no one would want to repeat after Nixon — yet here we are.

As of Friday, the last three employees of the committee (remainders from the previous Obama administration) have departed, leaving the OSTP completely unstaffed. The OSTP generally used to have around 40 employees, Obama used to have almost 100, deeming scientific intel as extremely important. Now, under the Trump administration, there are zero. Eleanor Celeste, the assistant director for biomedical and forensic sciences at the OSTP, tweeted, “Science division out. Mic drop” before leaving the office for the last time. Mic drop indeed.

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Kumar Garg, who also worked in the OSTP, Tweeted a similar thing.

Science left to atrophy

It’s disheartening and concerning to see the White House rid itself so easily of scientific advisory, but in all honesty, it’s not really surprising. As we said before, one of the main challenges of all leaders is to surround themselves with capable people, and you can tell a lot by Trump’s cabinet. The vast majority of them are white males, which says a lot to begin with — but you might make an argument that these were just the best picks, and simply happened to be white men. Well, where shall we start?

  • Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company in the world. Some of Trump’s earliest moves have been to give the fossil fuel lobby what they want and facilitate legislation for these corporations in more ways than one. Rather ironically, Tillerson is the only member of cabinet who accepts the scientific reality of climate change.
  • Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, is a staunch creationist and a big supporter of coal energy, despite the environmental damage and the lack of economic prospects it brings.
  • Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing, for his impressive medical CV, does not believe in evolution, the Big Bang, or even thermodynamics.
  • Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is actually an anti-environmentalist, openly stating the carbon dioxide doesn’t cause climate change, drawing critiques from the entire scientific community.

Are we seeing the pattern already? It’s not just that the government is non-scientific — which as we mentioned, is often the case to some extent — the thing is that this government is anti-science.

Image credits: March for Science / Wikipedia.

In less than a year, one of its hallmarks, which will no doubt leave long-standing wounds, is leaving numerous valuable positions empty. There’s no interest in science, so just de-staff science committees as much as possible — or fill them with industry execs. We don’t care about the environment, just slash thousands of EPA jobs. The President doesn’t need to be briefed in science, send the OSTP people home.

In truth, what the Trump administration has done, with remarkable swiftness, is to make anti-science cool again. It’s cool to be a climate change denier, it’s cool to not believe in evolution, it’s cool to dismiss science as a “liberal lunacy” — as it so often happens even in our comment section. Unfortunately, for those of us who still follow the rigors and realities of science, the work continues. Let’s make science cool again, shall we?

Agreed. Image credits: March for Science / Wikipedia.