Trump Revives Dormant Science and Technology Advisory Council

By Kenneth M. Evans, Ph.D.
Scholar in Science and Technology Policy

Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Ph.D.
Fellow in Science and Technology Policy

Nearly three years into his administration, President Trump has reestablished the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Policy (PCAST), an influential group of scientists and engineers that advises the White House on policy issues related to science, technology and innovation. However, the first round of appointments — which was dominated by industry representatives — raises questions about what role PCAST will play in an administration that has largely been at odds with the scientific community.

The first seven of 16 planned appointments arrives six months after Trump’s chief science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Kelvin Droegemeier, Ph.D., committed to reviving PCAST in his first public comments. Droegemeier will chair the council, which will “advise the President on matters involving science, technology, education, and innovation policy … and provide the President with scientific and technical information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the American economy, the American worker, national and homeland security, and other topics.”

The Trump administration’s appointment of PCAST follows a precedent set by each of the last four U.S. presidents, starting with President George H.W. Bush. Bush founded PCAST in 1990 as an analog to the post-WWII President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which counseled early cold war presidents on issues related to defense, space and research policy. After the end of the Cold War, PCAST turned its focus toward domestic policy challenges, such as innovation and advanced manufacturing, economic competitiveness, public health and biomedical research, as well as U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Trump’s PCAST differs from its predecessors in several ways. Earlier iterations of PCAST drew primarily from academia, and many members had significant government experience. However, six of Trump’s seven appointees currently work in the private sector, and only one has spent time in government leadership. While the White House has stated that the next set of appointments will include a larger percentage of academic scientists, industry representatives will likely still outnumber academics, a reversal from all four previous PCASTs.

The Trump administration’s PCAST has also reduced its membership to just 16 non-federal members when accounting for Droegemeier’s role as chair, down from a peak of 34 under President George W. Bush. The rationale behind Trump’s choice to tighten the council’s membership remains unclear — while a smaller council may be more manageable, it narrows the range of voices in building consensus on the controversial issues that PCAST has historically weighed in on, such as immigration, industrial policy and climate change.

Most notably, Trump’s executive order names just the director of OSTP as the sole chair of PCAST, a shift away from the last 25 years of PCAST operations, in which a citizen representative shared PCAST leadership as co-chair. During the Obama administration, the two co-chairs — President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, and famed geneticist, Eric Lander — employed two additional vice chairs to lead PCAST operations. The current PCAST charter also calls out artificial intelligence and quantum information science as key priorities for the council, mirroring the on-going science policy efforts at OSTP.

The unilateral leadership of Droegemeier, as well the stated alignment of PCAST’s priorities with the administration’s policy goals, calls into question just how independent PCAST members will be from the Trump agenda. Will members be able to bring new ideas to the table or voice concerns on contentious policies when Trump’s decisions are often far outside of scientific consensus? PSAC’s most important contribution during the Cold War was its ability to say “no” to bad ideas and research programs that they viewed not to be in the national interest. Earlier Trump advisory councils featuring technology and industry representatives ended abruptly after members expressed concern over Trump’s response to the violent and racially motivated attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. What will happen if a member of PCAST speaks out publicly against a decision made by the administration?

While the appointment of PCAST is an important step forward to ensuring science has a voice in the White House, it remains to be seen how the incoming expertise will be used. Will the scientists be restricted to domestic issues related to competitiveness, as the executive order implies? Or will they be able to represent the scientific and engineering community on crucial matters related to American science? Further, at almost three years into the Trump presidency, the appointment of a PCAST comes at a difficult time for the administration, which faces a mounting impeachment investigation, among other controversies. With only months left before Trump’s political team turns all its efforts toward reelection, how will this PCAST be able to create change in such a chaotic environment?

The coming months will bring the next wave of PCAST appointments, as well as its first meeting, still yet to be announced. The traditional role of a science advisor has been to “speak truth to power.” The appointed scientists, including five Ph.D.s across a range of technical disciplines (see names and titles listed below), have an opportunity bring truth to the power of the Trump White House. The question is: how will truth fare?


PCAST Members appointed October 22, 2019:

Catherine Bessant, chief technology officer at Bank of America

Dario Gil, Ph.D., director for research at IBM

Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., vice president at Cyclo Therapeutics

H. Fisk Johnson III, Ph.D., chief executive at S.C. Johnson & Son

Attiganal N. Sreeram, Ph.D., senior vice president for research at Dow Chemical

Shane Wall, chief technology officer at HP Labs

K. Birgitta Whaley, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center


This post originally appeared on the Science and Technology Policy Program’s Medium blog.