It’s taken the Trump administration more time to name a White House Science Adviser than any administration in modern history. This could lead you to believe that Trump doesn’t care about science, but maybe he was just waiting for the right candidate to come along. Someone like Bill Gates, for instance.
Gates met with President Trump on March 15th to discuss the various initiatives of his foundation and to argue against cuts to foreign aid. Since then, Gates has revealed some more details about that closed-door meeting, including the fact he urged the president to consider the potential of a pandemic as a national security threat. On Monday, STAT ran a new interview with Gates in which he said his conversation with Trump unexpectedly seemed to veer into a job offer. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has gone without a director since Trump took office, and Gates thought it might be beneficial if that position was filled. From the report:
“I mentioned: ‘Hey, maybe we should have a science adviser.’”
“He said: Did I want to be the science adviser?”
That’s not the answer Gates was looking for. “That’s not a good use of my time,” Gates recalled telling the president.
Gates admitted he doesn’t know what would have happened if he’d said yes. “I didn’t put him to the test, whether that was a serious thing or not. He probably himself didn’t know if he was serious. It was a friendly thing. He was being friendly.”
Good god, the look on the Microsoft founder’s face must have been priceless. It’s totally possible that Trump just wanted to clarify whether or not Gates was angling for a job. Even if he was, it’s hard to guess how Trump would’ve responded if Gates said he’d take the position.
From the beginning of his administration, the president has made oddball picks to lead his government. For instance, Rick Perry, a man who is not a nuclear physicist, was put in charge of the Department of Energy. He replaced Ernest Moniz, a man who is a nuclear physicist. Most recently, Trump picked his White House physician to run the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a role he was entirely unqualified to handle—and later, he was forced to drop out of the running. And Trump loves having celebrities around. He once tried to convince Sylvester Stallone to lead the National Endowment for the Arts.
At least Gates would be vaguely qualified for the position. Of course, he has better things to do than have his reputation destroyed by the Trump train, but the exchange does bring up a good point: We still don’t have a science adviser!
Since Congress established the OSTP in 1976, the president has been given plenty of freedom to organize the department as he sees fit. Before he assumed office, President Obama chose John Holdren, a former Harvard professor with a background in physics and environmental science, to run the OSTP. Obama also increased the department’s staff from the 45 Bush administration holdovers to 135 people. By July of last year, all of the senior leadership had left the OSTP and the general staff had dwindled to just 35 members. By February of this year, Michael Kratsios had become the most senior official that the department, and its de facto leader. Kratsios is 31-years-old, he has a degree in political science, and before coming to the White House he was tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s chief-of-staff.
But would a science adviser even matter in this administration? When it comes to scientific issues that are purely political for Trump, that seems unlikely. Scientific facts aren’t going to keep us in the Paris Climate accords. It would be nice to know that the president has an expert with some technical knowledge closely advising him on the North Korea nuclear negotiations. In the Obama administration, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was deeply involved in the negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever your opinion of that deal, you can’t possibly believe it would’ve gone better if Rick Perry was doing the technical consulting.
But those are big topics that Trump tends to pay attention to. A science adviser could take on a large role in handling initiatives that fly under the radar of this administration. Obama looked to his science adviser and the team at OSTP to consult on a huge range of issues, including its cancer moonshot initiative, a multi-million dollar neurotechnology program, and even regulations governing commercial drones. Imagine if someone Trump trusted could just talk some sense into him regarding net neutrality. Does anyone really believe Trump cares about net neutrality in the slightest?
The major point Bill Gates was trying to hammer home is that a science adviser would be especially useful in a crisis. Obama leaned on the OSTP while dealing with the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the 2010 BP Oil spill. Gates is currently concerned about the possibility of a pandemic hitting the US or abroad. “One thing’s for sure: No matter what your framework is, even if it’s that human benefits outside the country count for zero, stopping pandemics is a smart thing,” he told STAT. He hoped to get Trump interested in supporting a universal flu vaccine.
Biological disasters aren’t the only potential threats the OSTP could help with. Congress is currently feeling around in the dark trying to decide what to do about fundamental questions of privacy, data usage, security, and the overall governance of the internet. On top of that, the development of artificial intelligence is moving along at a rapid clip and is bound to provoke calls for regulation in the near future.
Considering that Bill and Melinda Gates have been slightly critical of Trump, it’s probably good that he didn’t say yes to Trump’s question. It could’ve easily tipped into another Mitt Romney-style exercise in humiliation. But, for the love of god, someone with actual scientific expertise needs to have Trump’s ear.