Trump plans shakeup of science council

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The White House plans to restructure the National Science and Technology Council, raising new questions about the Trump administration’s intentions on climate and energy policy.

An administration official said today that agency comments are being submitted this week on changes to the council, which is chaired by the president and includes the vice president and agency science leaders. There was a closed-door meeting last week with representatives from the Department of Energy, NASA and other agencies to discuss possible alterations that were “met with enthusiasm,” the official said.

Started in 1993 by executive order, the NSTC coordinates science policy across the government and influences budget decisions in agencies. Historically, it has produced multiagency reports on topics ranging from ocean acidification to wildfires.

We need “to make sure that the work coming out of the NSTC is best aligned with the priorities of the administration,” the administration official said.

The official said the council’s top-level committees, which currently includes a panel on environment, natural resources and sustainability, likely will remain intact. There could be shifts to the subgroups within those committees that could alter how the federal government debates and plans science policy. The environment sub-arm, for example, includes working groups on climate science, ocean science and disaster reduction, and their fate is unclear.

Kumar Garg, an Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) staffer during the Obama administration, questioned whether restructuring would ensure that agencies are talking to each other and are focused on specific issues. In the past, the council produced multiagency reports on topics such as algal blooms that were not always congressionally mandated.

During the Obama years, the number of annual reports from the council increased, so there were more than 30 in 2016. Last year, the council released one report on biosecurity, and a 2016 executive order mandated the council to establish a space weather committee (E&E News PM, Oct. 13, 2016).

Garg also asked why the restructuring is happening now, considering there still is not an OSTP director. The OSTP director typically oversees the council’s activities. Trump has gone longer than any modern president in picking a science adviser.

“It’s a little odd to lead a restructuring when you haven’t designated someone to represent the office,” Garg said.

The official defended moving forward on restructuring without an OSTP director in place, as the nomination and confirmation process could take time. “Why wait if agencies are spending their time and talent” on the council, the official said.

A search for an OSTP director “is very much in progress,” but there is not a definitive timeline for a nominee.

In the interim, a “triumvirate” is running OSTP, according to the official. That includes Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Kratsios, Deputy Chief of Staff Ted Wackler and General Counsel Rachael Leonard.

Last year, obtained documents showed that OSTP staff had dwindled to about a third of the size of the last year of the Obama administration, with the elimination of many positions focused solely on climate change (Greenwire, Aug. 4, 2017).

An OSTP roster obtained this week by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request shows staffing levels up to about 50 people, although many of the former climate positions have not been replaced.

Among the new hires are former Idaho National Laboratory employee Michael Goff, who is now a senior policy adviser on nuclear energy. OSTP is conducting a review of nuclear power.

Also on the staff list is Guillermo Mendoza, a former Army Corps of Engineers official who is now OSTP’s senior policy adviser on water policy.