Isn’t It Time for the President to Get a Science Advisor?
Donald Trump is about to enter into face-to-face negotiations on perhaps denuclearizing North Korea, or the Korean Peninsula. Nuclear weapons development and testing, ICBMs, nuclear reactors, and nuclear fuel concentration are highly technical areas which require detailed negotiations and terms to construct fool-proof treaties. Trump has still not appointed a White House Advisor to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The previous denuclearization treaty was between Iran and the European Union, Russia, and China. The treaty was completed under the supervision of the Secretary of the Department of Energy, MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz. It took several years of work. It allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out inspections in Iran for 25 years. Sadly, Trump withdrew from this treaty because it did not go beyond denuclearization, which it was not designed to do. Nor did it go beyond 10 years on banning Iran from producing nuclear materials.
The production of US nuclear weapons and their maintenance is carried out under the Department of Energy. That is now run by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, previous Governor of Texas. While he is not a nuclear physicist or an international negotiator, I’m sure that the Energy Department still have nuclear experts. The analysis of Korean nuclear capabilities is probably done by experts in the CIA. Previous head of the CIA and now Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had opposed the withdrawal from the Iran treaty. The State Department should have experts on the Korean negotiations, despite not having an Ambassador to South Korea. At Pompeo’s swearing-in at the Department of State, he brought President Trump along to show him the capabilities of State. The Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs have to be involved in any consideration of US weapons and troops stationed in South Korea, as we as military exercises with South Korea, and defensive missle systems near North Korea and around the United States. The White House really needs a Science Advisor and filled OSTP to bring all of these sources together under the leadership of a President.
But, with Trump’s impulses to go it alone, such as agreeing to a summit meeting with Kim Jung-Un without deliberative consultation, we don’t know what level of Executive Branch consultations are really involved. We also don’t know how much of an agreement Secretary Pompeo will have already worked out, with perhaps Trump only arriving for the photoshoot, as is often the case. Plus his signing something with his characteristic scribble.
The current de-facto Science Advisor is 31 year old Michael Kratsios, with a degree in political science and a focus on Hellenistic studies from Princeton. He has experience as Chief of Staff to Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal, and chairman of a big data company, Palantir Technologies. As of February, 2018, there were only 50 staff in OSTP, compared with 135 under President Obama. Most are said to be staff, and not scientists. This is why an in-house Science Advisor and core of nuclear experts in the White House OSTP would have been invaluable for the country and the President in making such important negotiations and a treaty.