12/23/2016 03:53 pm ET

How qualified, scientifically, are Trump's appointees?


NASA image of hurricane Sandy

Donald Trump's recent naming of key cabinet and agency appointees (which still must be approved by Congress) raises the question of the scientific qualifications for persons serving in high-level public office.

Some say that scientific qualifications are only important for positions directly relevant to scientific research, such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, and their equivalents in other nations. But this is very short-sighted. After all, science and technology are increasingly central to:

  • Energy: Finding practical and economically viable alternatives to fossil fuels, which involves research in mathematics, high-energy physics and materials science, is essential to avoid potentially cataclysmic long-term effects of climate change.
  • Defense: A large portion of the defense budget in any nation is connected to the procurement and management of state-of-the-art technologies -- weapon systems, fighter jets, information management systems, communications systems and more.
  • Health: The only way to contain spiraling health costs is through the aggressive use of medical technology and integrated medical data systems to improve the productivity of medical providers. And it is essential that all levels of the medical world thoroughly understand principles such as evolution, DNA, antibiotic resistance and the necessity of vaccination.
  • Homeland security: Technology and scientific research are central to detecting and countering terrorism, and also in long-range planning for calamities such as coastal flooding due to climate change.
In fact, it is hard to think of any aspect of government that does not crucially rely on modern science and technology. In any event, let us examine a few of Trump's appointees:

Rick Perry, to head the Department of Energy

Trump's pick for Secretary of Energy is former Texas Governor Rick Perry. He would oversee a $32.5 billion budget, which includes $12.8 billion for basic science and energy research and $12.9 billion for nuclear security (maintenance of the nuclear stockpile and improving physical and cybersecurity). It is worth emphasizing that DoE's basic science budget ($5.6 million) is significantly higher than the total budget of the National Science Foundation.

Perry would succeed Ernest Moniz, a distinguished nuclear physicist from MIT, and, before Moniz, Stephen Chu, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who was formerly the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But aside from a bachelor's degree in animal science, Perry has no significant scientific credentials.

Perry's past statements on scientific topics such as evolution are also a concern. In 2011, Perry responded to a question by saying "[evolution] is a theory that's out there, and it's got some gaps in it," but "in Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools." Needless to say, his dismissive characterization of evolution is completely inappropriate and unscientific. But even his statement about teaching evolution in Texas is wrong -- in spite of numerous attempts to include creationism or intelligent design or to insist on "equal time," Texas biology textbooks and science curricula present only evolution. If a teacher presents creationist material, he/she is clearly out of order, since such material has been prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court in several key rulings.

Of equal or greater concern are Perry's past comments about climate change, which is a topic directly related to his future role in overseeing energy research and development. In his 2010 book Fed Up!, he wrote

[Perry's opponents] have seen the headlines in the past year about doctored data related to global warming. They know we have been experiencing a cooling trend, that the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists, and that draconian policies with dire economic effects based on so-called science may not stand the test of time. ... And it's all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.

Needless to say, Perry's hostility to the fact of global warming is at odds with very well established scientific facts. The ten warmest years (in global land-ocean temperature) in the 136 years since accurate record keeping began have all occurred since 1998. 2015 was the warmest year on record, by far, and 2016 is on track to be even warmer than 2015. And the evidence that human activities are a primary cause of global warming is, at this point time, compelling. And with regards to Perry's suggestion that the field of climate research, with multiple international teams of highly trained scientists using the most sophisticated data gathering, data analysis and computer simulation tools available, is suspect and "falling apart," many would beg to differ.

Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency

Like Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt is a also a climate change skeptic. Earlier this year he wrote in the National Review, "Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind."

Pruitt is currently the Oklahoma attorney general, and is a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. In 2014 he wrote a letter to the EPA accusing federal regulators of greatly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by natural gas drilling operations in Oklahoma. However, it was later revealed that the three-page letter was written entirely by lawyers for Devon Energy, a large oil and gas company. In any event, it is clear that Pruitt plans to aggressively roll back environmental restrictions on oil and gas exploration.

Other appointments

Trump's selection to head the Department of interior is Ryan Zinke, U.S. Representative from Montana. He is also in favor of repealing Interior regulations, such as to limit methane waste from oil and gas wells. With regards to climate change, he acknowledges that climate change may be real. As he recently said, "If you go up to Glacier Park and have your lunch along the glaciers, you will see the glacier recede while you eat lunch." But he questions that human activities are a primary cause of the warming. As Zinke declared in 2014, "It's not a hoax, but it's not a proven science, either."

Trump's selection for Secretary of Education is wealthy philanthropist Elisabeth DeVos, daughter-in-law of the founder of Amway, and a strong advocate of school choice and vouchers. She appears to be an intelligent woman, but she brings no significant scientific credentials to the all-important task of improving U.S. educational performance in STEM fields, which is essential if the U.S. is not to fall behind in international competitiveness and productivity.

NASA plans

Although no one has yet been proposed for NASA Administrator, Trump appears to favor eliminating climate research at NASA. Trump adviser Bob Walker said that there was no need for NASA to perform "politically correct environmental monitoring."

Along this line, on 14 December 2016 Trump Adviser Anthony Scaramucci told CNN's Chris Cuomo, "Look, I know that the current president believes that human beings are affecting the climate. There are scientists that believe that that's not happening." When Cuomo responded that there is an overwhelming consensus that there is such an impact, Scaramucci dismissed it by saying "there was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat, ... and there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world."

Scientific reaction

Needless to say, many scientists are discouraged by these appointments. If there is any common thread here, it is that connections, dealmaking skills and business acumen are important, but that scientific knowledge and technical experience are not. As physicist Lawrence Krauss explains, Rick Perry "has not demonstrated that he is the person for this job." Krauss added, "we need someone who is better prepared to handle the challenges. ... Maybe not a rocket scientist, but not someone who likes to think that the laws of physics can be played with at will."

Climate scientists are particularly concerned with these developments. At this year's American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco (12-16 December 2016), the atmosphere was described as one of panic. Researchers are particularly concerned that valuable climate data might be discarded under a Trump administration, and are feverishly attempting to store backup copies away from federal government computer systems.

Eric Holthaus, an Arizona meteorologist, personally doesn't think that the Trump administration would intentionally delete data, but he is concerned that budget cuts would place the storage and maintenance of that data in jeopardy. He explained, "I see our efforts as a firewall against a hostile administration."

Winning the battle, but losing the war

While these developments may be disheartening, especially to scientists, it should be recognized that in a larger sense scientists themselves are possibly reaping the whirlwind from decades of cloistering themselves in their laboratories and not paying much attention to the public. As a result, we have reached a point where a large fraction of the public is not only ignorant of science, but is also hostile, or at least deeply ambivalent, to the field. One can argue that the current developments are simply a political manifestation of this ambivalence.

So what can scientists do to reverse this trend? Here are some ideas:

  • Start a blog.
  • Visit schools.
  • Run for public office.
  • Write articles for science news forums.
  • Study creative writing, arts and humanities to sharpen communication skills.
  • Recognize those who do reach out in hiring, promotion, tenure and research funding decisions.
Yes, doing things like the above takes effort and time, and time certainly is not a commodity that the typical harried scientist has much to spare. But the alternative is yet another generation ignorant of and hostile to science. These tensions might well increase as technology developments such as self-driving cars and trucks threaten more jobs.

Scientists also need to recognize that the time has come to become more involved in the national and worldwide public scene. Such activities may be anathema to most scientists (and some researchers may be prohibited by law from engaging in such activities). But one way or the other, scientists need to recognize the new reality and find constructive ways to deal with it. Bellyaching, without solid plans or organization, accomplishes nothing.