One of the many vacant positions within the Trump administration is head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In the meantime, a 31-year-old political scientist Michael Kratsios maintains the post, much to the chagrin of Congressional Democrats and the nation's leading scientific organizations.
Kratsios graduated from Princeton in 2008 with a political science degree and a focus on Hellenic studies. He previously served as chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the controversial Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump ally.
It is possible that the position remains open because the administration believes its preferred candidate might not make it through the confirmation process.
If the president believes that the Senate would balk at a nominee who questions widely accepted views on climate change, he might prefer to leave the post open, said William Happer, an emeritus physics professor at Princeton University who is considered a leading candidate for the job. Happer says the Earth is experiencing a "CO2 famine."
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes it could also be that administration officials fear having their political agenda derailed:
"They don't want any dissenting voice that gets in the way of a wholly political decision, and if you put science into the mix, it's harder to make a wholly political decision because you have to follow the evidence, and they don't want to do that on any of the issues," Rosenberg said.
Regardless of why President Trump has neglected to nominate someone for the position, the fact that it remains empty concerns those who know that urgent issues often arise unexpectedly:
The position can be a quiet post for months, or even years, only to be hurled into a national crisis in an instant, said Neal Lane, who served as science adviser under President Clinton and is now a senior fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.
President George W. Bush had an anthrax scare, and Obama oversaw the Deepwater Horizon disaster and an Ebola outbreak. All of them required a scientific leader to help coordinate an informed and quick response, Lane said.
In a letter to the White House, a group of Democratic senators noted the situations which already called for the counsel of science adviser:
"In previous administrations, OSTP was central to disaster mitigation efforts, including hurricanes — but when Hurricane Irma, Harvey and Maria struck the U.S., OSTP lacked key leaders," the lawmakers wrote. "Scientific and technical input would also have contributed to decisions around climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea's nuclear program — areas where key decisions have been made over the past nine months in absence of a science adviser and other officials."
Administration officials have indicated that the post is vacant due to an ongoing search for the right candidate:
A White House official told E&E News this week that the search for a science adviser is still underway and that a "triumvirate" is running OSTP, including Kratsios, deputy chief of staff Ted Wackler and general counsel Rachael Leonard.