New White House Science Adviser Doesn't Know When He's Allowed to Go to Work

"He has demonstrated many years of public service at the interface of science and policy."

The Trump administration officially has its first science adviser, but he doesn’t know when his first day of work will be. On Tuesday, the US Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier, Ph.D., as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OSTP is one of the federal agencies affected by the partial federal government shutdown, which is currently the fourth-longest in history.

Droegemeier was nominated by President Donald Trump in July and has served as an adviser to the OSTP since early September. He was previously the Vice Chairman of the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation under President George W. Bush and is a published extreme weather meteorologist. It’s a resume that Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says is essential and welcomed.

“Science and technology are embedded in almost every issue that the president deals with, and we’ve urged the nomination of a respected scientist or engineer to this position since 2016,” Holt tells Inverse. “Kelvin Droegemeier is such a scientist; his work cuts across many disciplines from meteorology to cybersecurity, and he has demonstrated many years of public service at the interface of science and policy.”

March for Science, Washington, DC
Scene from the March for Science in Washington, D.C.

The OSTP is part of the Executive Office of the President and is tasked with advising the president on how science and technology relate to and influence the economy, human health, the environment, the use of resources, and national and homeland security. Before Droegemeier’s confirmation, the Trump administration oversaw the longest vacancy for the position of OSTP director since the office’s founding. During the Obama administration, the OSTP had a staff of 135 people; under President Trump that number dropped to 45.

Jacob Carter, Ph.D., agrees that Droegemeier is a qualified choice and hopes his presence will change how the Trump administration treats scientific evidence. Carter is a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) who investigates how science is used in the policy-making process. He’s previously worked at the OSTP, an experience that demonstrated to him the importance of the director’s position.

“The position not only affects how science is conducted at the agencies, but also how science is incorporated into policies decisions made by the federal agencies,” Carter tells Inverse. “The UCS is going to be watching very carefully to see if he is being empowered and listened to because the scientific perspective has definitely been sidelined by the Trump administration so far.”

A 2018 survey conducted by the UCS found that federal scientists widely agreed that their work was held back by political interference, censorship, and overall low morale.

“The Trump administration decisions have often been based on shoddy science, or pushed through without using scientific evidence,” Carter says. “Considering this, Droegemeier has a really big task ahead of him. He needs to advocate for federal scientists and for policies that actually reflect scientific evidence.”

Carter believes it’s especially important that Droegemeier pursues air pollution policies: Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency disbanded the Particulate Matter Review Panel. The panel oversaw the regulation of soot particles, which can cause damage to lung and heart function. He also believes that now is the time for Droegemeier to show leadership in climate change science, a space that’s been censored by the Trump administration.

But when Droegemeier can actually get to work remains to be seen. Holt emphasizes he hopes that Droegemeier will be “quickly integrated into the administration’s decision-making” — when the shutdown ends and he returns to D.C. from Oklahoma.