The U.S. government’s scientific efforts are divided among several agencies. Some are obvious, like the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior, which oversees national parks and the Endangered Species Act. But others are less so. For example, the Commerce Department includes NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while the National Institutes of Health falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.
The people who run these agencies will have a major say in U.S. research priorities for the next four years, and they will determine the role science plays in making policy decisions. So as Trump’s transition team begins vetting potential candidates, the rumored names may say a lot about what to expect.
Many of these rumors are tentative enough that they essentially tell us nothing. For example, potential candidates for the position of Secretary of Commerce include everyone from the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee (Lew Eisenberg), to two different corporate executives, to several former Trump primary opponents, such as Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry. NOAA keeps one of the two U.S. temperature records used for climate monitoring (NASA keeps the other) and tracks ocean health. (Maybe it gets all of NASA’s Earth science research, too.) But it’s hard to guess whether any of these figures would pay much attention to these activities, much less make major revisions to them.
Other possible choices are similar to Christie’s: Trump’s major public funders are being considered for various cabinet positions, some of which manage scientific research or policy. Physician and politician Ben Carson, for example, is being considered for a variety of positions, including Health and Human Services. Just like Newt Gingrich. Sarah Palin is also a possibility for a number of positions, including the head of the Interior Department.
The Department of the Interior manages US public lands, including national parks. As part of this job, it provides energy recovery from these lands, both fossil and renewable fuels (it was critical to the management of the first offshore wind projects in the US). It also houses the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act. Clearly, Palin’s “drill baby drill” mentality would mark a major change of course for the Interior Department, as would another possible choice: oil company founder Forrest Lucas.
Trump’s son, Donald Junior, is also reportedly interested in the job.
An oil executive is also the leading candidate to head the Department of Energy. That’s Harold Hamm of Continental Resources, whom Reuters deemed a “fracking mogul.” Hamm is so entrenched it’s hard to find any indication that anyone else is even thought of. The DOE has played a central role in advancing the development of wind, solar, and nuclear energy in the US and has promoted battery research. Putting a fossil fuel executive in charge would probably mean a radical shift in priorities.
But the biggest change is likely to come at the EPA, which has spearheaded Obama’s climate efforts. The rules for reducing carbon emissions, while currently embroiled in litigation, will further restrict the use of coal energy. Coal has already suffered from cheap wind and natural gas prices, and US production has plummeted.
Trump has promised to restore the coal industry despite the economic realities. That includes eliminating Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but his plan will have to go much further given coal’s economic problems. There is some evidence that Trump’s plan for coal may also include curtailing or scrapping previous rules on mercury, sulfur and nitrogen emissions. If so, Competitive Enterprise Institute frontrunner Myron Ebell is probably the right person to lead the EPA. Ebell is known for questioning whether humans have influenced the recent warming trend and stated confidently that warming is likely to be contained and beneficial despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
Other leading candidates include state administration environmental officials Christie and Pence. Pence has also questioned the science behind climate change and, while Christie hasn’t, his administration has pulled New Jersey out of a regional carbon trading market.
Overall, the choices reflect Trump’s general disinterest in science and his strong desire to increase fossil fuel use. As such, they will represent a significant departure from current administration.