The US government’s science efforts are split across a variety of agencies. Some are obvious, like the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Parks and Endangered Species Act. But others are less so. For example, the Commerce Department includes the NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while the National Institutes of Health falls within the Department of Health and Human Services.
The people who run these agencies will have major say over the US’ research priorities for the next four years, and they’ll determine what role science plays in making policy decisions. So, as the Trump transition team begins the work of vetting potential candidates, the rumored names may say a lot about what we can expect.
A lot of these rumors are preliminary enough that they essentially tell us nothing. For example, possible candidates floated for Commerce Secretary include everyone from the Republican National Committee finance chair (Lew Eisenberg), to two different business executives, to several of Trump’s former primary opponents like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry. The NOAA keeps one of the US’ two temperature records used for climate monitoring (NASA keeps the other), and it tracks the ocean’s health. (It may also get all of NASA’s earth sciences research.) But it’s hard to guess whether any of these figures would pay much attention to these activities, much less make major revisions in them.
Other possible picks are similar to Christie: major public backers of Trump are being considered for a variety of 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. So is Newt Gingrich. Sarah Palin is a possibility for a number of positions as well, among them the head of the Department of the Interior.
Interior manages the US’ public lands, including its National Parks. As part of this task, it handles energy extraction done on these lands, both fossil fuel and renewable (it’s been critical for managing the first offshore wind projects in the US). It also hosts the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act. Obviously, Palin’s “drill baby drill” mentality would mean a major change of direction for Interior, as would another possible choice: Forrest Lucas, founder of an oil company.
Trump’s son, Donald Junior, is reportedly also interested in the job.
An oil executive is also the leading candidate to run the Department of Energy. That’s Continental Resources’ Harold Hamm, who Reuters deemed a “fracking mogul.” Hamm is so well entrenched that it’s hard to find any indications that anyone else is even being considered. The DOE has been central to promoting the development of the US’ wind, solar, and nuclear power, and has been fostering battery research. Putting a fossil fuel executive in charge would likely mean a radical shift in priorities.
But the biggest change will probably be at the EPA, which has spearheaded Obama’s climate efforts. Its rules for curbs on carbon emissions, while currently mired in court cases, will provide a further limit on the use of coal power. Coal was already suffering from cheap wind and natural gas prices, and production in the US has been dropping sharply.
Trump has promised to restore the coal industry despite the economic realities. That includes eliminating Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but his plan will need to go well beyond that, given coal’s economic problems. Indications are that Trump’s plan for coal may also include curtailing or eliminating earlier rules on mercury, sulfur, and nitrogen emissions. If so, then front-runner Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute is likely to be the right person for the job of leading the EPA. Ebell is noted for questioning whether humans have influenced the recent warming trend, and confidently stated that warming is likely to be limited and beneficial, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary.
Other leading candidates include the environmental officers from the Christie and Pence state administrations. Pence has also questioned the science behind climate change and, while Christie hasn’t, his administration 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’ll represent a significant departure from the current administration.