“There is no serious scientist to help the president through the thicket”

Writing for The New York Times, Coral Davenport writes about how Donald Trump’s war on science has not only furthered environmental damage and vulnerability to disasters but left him unprepared for this week’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un:

As President Trump prepares to meet Kim Jong-un of North Korea to negotiate denuclearization, a challenge that has bedeviled the world for years, he is doing so without the help of a White House science adviser or senior counselor trained in nuclear physics.

Mr. Trump is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser, a position created during World War II to guide the Oval Office on technical matters ranging from nuclear warfare to global pandemics. As a businessman and president, Mr. Trump has proudly been guided by his instincts. Nevertheless, people who have participated in past nuclear negotiations say the absence of such high-level expertise could put him at a tactical disadvantage in one of the weightiest diplomatic matters of his presidency.

“You need to have an empowered senior science adviser at the table,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with India over a civilian nuclear deal during the George W. Bush administration. “You can be sure the other side will have that.”

The lack of traditional scientific advisory leadership in the White House is one example of a significant change in the Trump administration: the marginalization of science in shaping United States policy.

There is no chief scientist at the State Department, where science is central to foreign policy matters such as cybersecurity and global warming. Nor is there a chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture: Mr. Trump last year nominated Sam Clovis, a former talk-show host with no scientific background, to the position, but he withdrew his name and no new nomination has been made.

These and other decisions have consequences for public health and safety and the economy. Both the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have disbanded climate science advisory committees. The Food and Drug Administration disbanded its Food Advisory Committee, which provided guidance on food safety.

Government-funded scientists said in interviews that they were seeing signs that their work was being suppressed, and that they were leaving their government jobs to work in the private sector, or for other countries.

After Mr. Trump last year withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, the international pact committing nations to tackle global warming, France started a program called “Make Our Planet Great Again” — named in reference to Mr. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” — to lure the best American scientists to France. The program has so far provided funding for 24 scientists from the United States and other countries to do their research in France.

The White House declined to comment on these and other suggestions that the role of science in policymaking has been diminished in the Trump administration. Regarding the coming talks with Mr. Kim, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, Garrett Marquis, emphasized that “the president’s advisers are experts in their fields.”

The larger matter, though, is the president’s lack of a close senior adviser at the White House level, someone who has Mr. Trump’s trust and his ear, said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the post-World War II period where issues as important as nuclear weapons are on the table, and there is no serious scientist there to help the president through the thicket,” he said. “This reverberates throughout policy.”

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