WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump prepares to meet Kim Jong Un of North Korea to negotiate denuclearization, a challenge that has bedeviled the world for years.
Trump is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser, a position created during World War II to guide the Oval Office on technical matters ranging from nuclear warfare to global pandemics.
As a businessman and president, Trump has proudly been guided by his instincts. Nevertheless, people who have participated in past nuclear negotiations say the absence of such high-level expertise could put him at a tactical disadvantage in one of the weightiest diplomatic matters of his presidency.
“You need to have an empowered senior science adviser at the table,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with India over a civilian nuclear deal during the George W. Bush administration. “You can be sure the other side will have that.”
The lack of traditional scientific advisory leadership in the White House is one example of a significant change in the Trump administration: the marginalization of science in shaping U.S. policy.
There is no chief scientist at the State Department, where science is central to foreign policy matters such as cybersecurity and global warming. Nor is there a chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture: Trump last year nominated Sam Clovis, a former talk-show host with no scientific background, to the position, but he withdrew his name and no new nomination has been made.
These and other decisions have consequences for public health and safety and the economy. Both the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have disbanded climate science advisory committees. The Food and Drug Administration disbanded its Food Advisory Committee, which advised on food safety.
At the same time, government-funded scientists said in interviews that they are now seeing signs that their work is being suppressed, and they are leaving their government jobs to work in the private sector, or for other countries.
After Trump last year withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, the international pact committing nations to tackle global warming, France launched a program called “Make Our Planet Great Again” — named in reference to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” — to lure the best U.S. scientists to France. The program has so far provided funding for 24 scientists from the United States and other countries to do their research in France.
The White House declined to comment on these and other suggestions that the role of science in policymaking has been diminished in the Trump administration. Regarding this week’s talks with Kim, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, Garrett Marquis, emphasized that “the president’s advisers are experts in their fields.”
The larger matter, though, is the president’s lack of a close senior adviser at the White House level — someone who has Trump’s trust and his ear — said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the post-World War II period where issues as important as nuclear weapons are on the table and there is no serious scientist there to help the president through the thicket,” he said. “This reverberates throughout policy.”
— Ground Zero: The EPA
In Washington, the administration’s excising of science is particularly evident at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the EPA, is the subject of at least 12 government investigations into his first-class travel, costly security detail and management of the agency. At the same time, he has won praise from Trump for his speed at rolling back environmental regulations.
Pruitt has initiated more than a dozen regulatory rollbacks, including signing a measure declaring his intent to undo or weaken President Barack Obama’s climate change regulations known as the Clean Power Plan.
However, his more enduring legacy may be in diminishing the role of academic, peer-reviewed science at the agency. “It’s not Pruitt’s exorbitant spending, but rather a lot of these less sexy things they’re quietly doing on science that will cause the real long-term damage,” said Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group.
Pruitt has begun to systematically change how the EPA treats science. In April, he proposed a regulation that would dramatically limit the types of scientific research that EPA officials could take into account when crafting new public health policies, a change that could weaken the agency’s ability to protect public health.
The new rules would require that the data from all scientific studies used by the EPA to formulate air and water regulations be publicly available. Pruitt has touted that as a step toward increasing scientific transparency. “The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” he said in a statement.
However, the change could sharply limit the research available to the EPA because health studies routinely rely on confidential health data from individuals.
Last year, Pruitt significantly altered two major scientific panels that advise the EPA on writing public health rules, restricting academic researchers from joining the boards while appointing several scientists who work for industries regulated by the EPA.
These and other changes “will diminish the characterization of pollution as risky,” said William K. Reilly, who headed the EPA under the first President George Bush. “This tolerance for more exposure to pollution is altogether different from anything we are used to.”
In a statement defending the changes to the committees, Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman, said the agency “sought a wider range of voices” and “was thrilled with the response of over 700 applicants.” The boards, he said, are not only highly qualified but also “independent and geographically diverse.”
This year, Pruitt sent a memo to the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee ordering steps that could effectively diminish the role of scientific evidence in air pollution enforcement. The committee is required by law to prioritize the health effects of pollution, but Pruitt’s memo orders it to consider potential economic consequences of meeting tighter clean-air rules — for example, the possibility that tougher pollution standards could make air-conditioning more expensive, leading to more deaths from heat.
“This memo flouts the clear evidence of medical science,” said John Walke, an expert in clean-air policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy organization. “Pruitt wants to set a definition of clean air that is medically unsafe.”
— Scientists Resign
The Interior Department secretary, Ryan Zinke, is working to carry out Trump’s campaign pledge to open public lands to extract oil, gas and coal. At the same time, though, his agency has pulled back from examining the health risks to fossil fuel workers.
In August, the department halted a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine into links between surface mining and health, specifically the exposure to coal dust in the air and drinking water. “We never got a clear reason why it was canceled,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.
Several Interior Department scientists have resigned to protest actions like these that are perceived as undermining research.
In January, the majority of members of the Interior Department’s National Parks System Advisory Board, which advises on management of national parks, resigned to protest Trump administration policies. Tony Knowles, the former head of the board, said Zinke “appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, pursuing the protection of the ecosystem.”
Beyond the Interior Department, government scientists say they are feeling a rising indifference to their work, as well as occasional open hostility, that is triggering a brain drain.
Among the scientists who have chosen to move on is Ben Sanderson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, whose research focuses on the impact of climate change on society. In the Trump administration, “To talk about climate risk when connected to human activity is now a no-no if you want to get government funding,” Sanderson said.
Last year, he saw a way out: the French government’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” program. Sanderson was awarded a $1.8 million, five-year grant to work for Météo-France, the national weather forecaster, at their campus in Toulouse.
“The French program was offering an opportunity to work on climate impacts — the work that’s at the core of my research,” Sanderson said. That kind of science, he said, “is increasingly difficult to do in the U.S.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.