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President Trump's top scientist, once sidelined, now faces a coronavirus test

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

When Kelvin Droegemeier was 19 years old, he chased down his first tornado in the Texas Panhandle and was struck by the “power and majesty” of nature, he told senators on the Commerce Committee in August 2018. Droegemeier, who later turned that passion into a career in meteorology, also told committee members he believes “science needs to be conducted free from political interference.” 

Several decades after that teenage adventure, Droegemeier is one of President Trump’s top scientific advisers as the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, known as the OSTP. In that role, he is facing a different kind of natural disaster: a dangerous pandemic with cases doubling every few days, stranding Americans at home and shuttering businesses and offices across the country. 

Yet while Droegemeier is now a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, he was not initially included on the list when it was first formed in late January, a move that surprised colleagues and outside experts, sources tell Yahoo News. Droegemeier’s initial exclusion from the task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, highlights a larger tension of the Trump administration, which has faced criticism in the past for neglecting scientific experts. 

Kelvin Droegemeier appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in August 2018. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via Zuma Wire/ZumaPress.com)

Trump’s opponents have pointed to former President Barack Obama, who invested heavily in scientific advice, frequently consulting with scientists across government agencies. It was a top-heavy structure that some criticized as slow and others celebrated as deeply methodical.

Under Trump, the scientific community has seen a mixed commitment and sometimes open skepticism and derision, depending on the subject matter. Many scientists at the White House and across different agencies saw their roles initially diminished or sidelined following the transition of power in 2016. 

While the administration put forth a biodefense strategy in 2018 and has championed issues like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, Trump has insisted he has a “natural instinct” for science and didn’t appoint a head of OSTP for more than a year, while openly deriding climate change. His administration has also been criticized for disbanding a team within the National Security Council focused on global health. (Tim Morrison, a former senior NSC director under Trump, insisted the staff had merely been streamlined.)

William Happer, the director for emerging technologies on Trump’s NSC until September 2019, told Yahoo News the NSC maintains a high level of expertise in infectious diseases. “I am sure they will do a very good job,” he wrote in an email.

Many of the current and former officials familiar with the role of science in the White House interviewed by Yahoo News requested anonymity, out of fear of retribution as well as concern over distracting efforts to respond to the crisis by highlighting personal disagreements. However, several noted the importance of holding accountable the officials tasked with responding to the coronavirus, not only for the present moment but for future emergencies. Droegemeier declined interview requests through a spokesperson, who provided statements about his role to Yahoo News.

President Trump at a White House news briefing with the coronavirus task force on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump’s seeming lack of interest in government scientists was established even before he officially occupied the White House. Obama officials describe conducting multiple tabletop exercises with the incoming Trump transition team, including one about the potential response to a global pandemic modeled after their experience with Ebola. The exercise, first reported by Politico, predicted “about 85 percent” of what is currently happening, according to a former official present for the meeting. “Not only did they not build upon it,” the former official told Yahoo News, “they dismantled it.”

Even if some efforts were sidelined, scientific experts within the White House and in other executive agencies have continued to play quiet, important roles, particularly in the last year. At the heart of those efforts is Droegemeier, now one of several key officials on the coronavirus task force. He is responsible in part for providing scientific advice, culled from a vast network of government and external experts, to the West Wing. 

The office Droegemeier heads, the OSTP, was established in 1976 as the successor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, which helped spur military and industrial innovation to help the Allies win World War II. Like that of other presidential advisory groups, the OSTP’s usefulness depends on the president’s level of interest in engaging it.

The OSTP insists that voice is valued under Trump. “Dr. Droegemeier’s extensive experience as a scientist has made him an important voice at the table, and he has a robust ability to bring experts together from the nation and the world to work on solutions,” a spokesperson for the OSTP told Yahoo News in a statement. 

“His experience also lends to his great ability to advise President Trump on science and technology matters,” the spokesperson continued. “He truly is a direct link to the scientific community. Also, as a meteorologist he has a wealth of knowledge on data, modeling and prediction, which has been monumentally valuable during this outbreak.”

It does appear the coronavirus threat has changed Trump’s standoffish approach to scientific advice. It has already forced the president to defer to scientists in government, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has taken on a leading role in White House briefings as the administration’s point man for the coronavirus response

“This pandemic is historical, it’s colossal, it’s epic, it’s unprecedented,” said J. Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a phone interview with Yahoo News. “It’s going to set off years of deliberation ... of inquiries in which the academies and OSTP and others are going to be called upon.” 

But when it comes to scientific advice, the OSTP “is sometimes important and sometimes isn’t ... depending on who occupies it and what their access is to the White House,” Morrison said.

J. Stephen Morrison, left, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

When Droegemeier was tapped to head the OSTP, some in the scientific community held out hope he’d also be officially appointed as the assistant to the president for science and technology, a dual-hatted role that some of his predecessors held. While Droegemeier has not been formally appointed to that role, he conducts several of its functions, including managing the National Science and Technology Council and co-chairing the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which is effectively the “same job,” according to an OSTP spokesperson. 

Droegemeier’s predecessor, John Holdren, who served as Obama’s science adviser, had expertise that ranged from the environment to aeronautics. Former Holdren colleagues recalled his close relationship with Obama, including during the disaster at Fukushima in Japan, sleeping at his desk multiple nights in a row and briefing the president every couple of hours. 

It’s unclear how much face time Droegemeier gets with Trump. Droegemeier recently noted that the president was regularly visiting meetings of the coronavirus task force and asking questions.

While several sources lamented the previous lack of emphasis on science in the Trump administration, they praised Droegemeier’s ability to be “shrewd” and avoid politics, using the levers at his disposal, including his connections to the broader scientific community and private sector, to quietly push a sound perspective.

In September of last year, observers of Trump’s briefings on Hurricane Dorian that inaccurately portrayed the path of the storm noticed the absence of Droegemeier, a meteorologist, from his side. However, Droegemeier consistently struck a careful tone, echoing his confirmation hearing, when he declined to comment about his positions on climate change.

Some members of the OSTP have deeper access to the president. Michael Kratsios, the chief technology officer who served as the temporary head of the OSTP prior to Droegemeier’s confirmation, has allies in the West Wing and has mobilized his connections to the tech industry in response to the present crisis.

Currently, according to two sources familiar with the matter, many members of the White House team working on the coronavirus response are, like others in government, working remotely and trying to schedule meetings and phone calls away from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “We’re in this unprecedented circumstance. We’re all adjusting,” said one administration official familiar with the response.

Droegemeier has been involved in several aspects of the coronavirus response. In February, he asked the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the origins of the virus in order to counter disinformation, including conspiracies that the disease was manufactured in a lab in Wuhan, China. He also convened the first meeting of the standing committee on emerging infectious diseases, along with Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, via teleconference last week. 

Marcia McNutt, then director of the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2010. (Dirk Lammers/AP)

McNutt acknowledged the academy “has not typically been known for its nimbleness,” a criticism multiple experts echoed when interviewed by Yahoo News. However, the committee came together in a matter of days and allowed experts, ranging from an official working for the CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, to academics at top universities like Harvard, to weigh in on concerns that need to be addressed, such as delays in testing and the disproportionate impact of the disease on vulnerable communities. 

The task force is also communicating with international partners through phone calls at all hours of the day, getting frequent updates on the status of the outbreak and the response. According to the source familiar with the response, White House staffers and others across the administration had already been building relationships with international partners over the summer.

And a couple of weeks ago, Droegemeier met with representatives from the Pentagon, the intelligence community, academics and other experts from within the government to focus on providing funds to academics who have been modeling the disease’s trajectory on their own free time, an effort that has inspired confidence among government experts, said another source present at the meeting. “It’s hard to get people interested when there’s not an acute emergency,” the source told Yahoo News. “It’s really hard to do on the fly.” 

Droegemeier has also persuaded editors of top scientific journals to release their research on the coronavirus and the related family of diseases for free. And Kratsios has called on artificial-intelligence researchers to comb through nearly 30,000 of these academic articles now available in a machine-readable database, searching for keywords to answer basic questions required by first responders. 

Teamwork within the White House will be important too. Former Obama officials lamented the elimination of many roles within the National Security Council focused on global health and pandemics that have coordinated with the OSTP in the past. In 2018, national security adviser John Bolton dismissed Tim Ziemer, known for his aggressive, yearlong fight against malaria during the Bush administration, as part of an effort to cut the number of staff at the NSC.

Tim Morrison, the former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council, argued that criticism was unfounded, and that his former office was well-staffed and accomplished several biodefense-related achievements over recent years, including an executive order to modernize influenza vaccines. However, former officials remained worried that lumping issues like biodefense with global health might exclude specific subject area experts whose perspective would be valuable in the current crisis. 

Some NSC officials who rely on scientific advice are due to rotate out in the next couple of months, according to one source familiar with the matter, and others are trying to pick up the public health portfolio despite a lack of expertise.

Tim Morrison, the former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Not everyone believes there should be large, robust committees or advisory boards within the White House. The Heritage Foundation published a science policy recommendation paper in 2016 arguing that while involving the government in science and technology has been helpful in the past, it may be “ill-fitting” for the modern day, slowing down progress with unnecessary bureaucracy. 

Having the OSTP act as a planning committee that brings in outside experts, rather than an operational body making things happen, might be the right role, argues Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, who assisted Trump’s transition team with diplomacy. “It’s a very Trumpian thing. Trump’s inclination is, if the government doesn’t have the answer, to reach out beyond the government and ask,” he told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “Not every smart person is in government.”

The CSIS’s Morrison noted that the “oracles” of the current crisis may in fact lie beyond government, and may serve a role in fact-checking and challenging the administration from the outside. “Science leadership more often than not comes from other places,” he said, listing Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC, and Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, who has become a critic of the administration’s slow response to the coronavirus crisis.

However, several experts noted that calling up specialists when the crisis is already at hand, rather than relying on someone whose office is next door, might be slower and less effective. Additionally, in terms of the logistics of crisis response, that expertise is more than likely going to be found inside the government.

One source familiar with the ongoing White House response wondered aloud why that expertise hasn’t been front and center in the current crisis.

“You have great scientific advice,” the person said. “Why don’t you showcase it?” 

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