‘It is terrifying that our government is operating without the advice of scientists,’ the AAAS president tells the group’s annual meeting

The leadership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has expressed serious concern that the Trump administration is disregarding science advice. This claim was made at a press briefing that kicked off the organisation’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas on 15 February.

‘As we changed our government in the US, the position of science adviser to the president and the positions of science advisers in most of the agencies across Washington DC remain open,’ said the AAAS’s president Susan Hockfield, who is also a professor of neuroscience and the president emerita of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ‘It is terrifying that our government is operating without the advice of scientists,’ she said.

More than a year into his administration, President Trump has yet to nominate anyone to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). As of 31 December 2017, he had filled just 20 of the 83 government posts that the US National Academies of Science designate as ‘scientist appointees’, according to a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists last month. At this point in their respective administrations, President Obama had filled 63 such positions and President George W Bush had filled 51, the UCS says.

It has taken Trump longer to pick a science adviser than any other US president in the four decades since the job has existed. He has now overtaken former president George W Bush’s record of five months.

John Holdren, who served as president Obama’s science adviser for eight years, lamented the current situation at another meeting session. ‘President Trump has shown virtually no interest in facts of any kind,’ Holdren said. ‘There is no successor to me, there is no successor to any of the four Senate-confirmed association directors in OSTP, there are vacant positions across the departments and agencies – undersecretary positions, assistant secretary positions – with science and technology responsibilities.’

Holdren suggested that it is likely the Trump administration offered some of these positions to scientists who declined because the president does not appear interested in evidence.

General erosion

Hockfield warned that the US’s scientific enterprise is currently at risk. ‘There is a general erosion of confidence in experts and in expertise, and we have insufficient and unpredictable funding for fundamental research,’ she said.

AAAS’s chief executive, Rush Holt, a former congressman and physicist, emphasised that science’s perspective is important for policy decisions. He noted that John Holdren was routinely involved with various key government bodies like the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council. ‘I spent 16 years in the US Congress, and I can tell you that science traditionally is overlooked,’ Holt said. ‘It is important for scientists, or at least people who are comfortable with the ideas of science, to be present.’

However, Holt underscored that the role of the AAAS is not just to sound the alarm that science is being neglected in Washington DC, but to try to help address the problem. ‘One of the things that has been very encouraging during this gloomy period, is that membership in the AAAS has been booming, and many new members tell us that the reason they joined is so they can be part of advocacy,’ Hockfield stated. ‘Volume makes a difference – volume of people, volume of voices, volume of statement.’

She estimated that close to half the new AAAS members are science advocates, who are not practicing scientists or engineers. ‘Scientists tend not to be the people who are out there blowing the trumpets and marching in the parades,’ she said. ‘One of the roles of the AAAS currently is to raise the visibility of science really quite broadly.’