Trump still hasn’t appointed a science adviser — but he did offer the job to Bill Gates, who said it was “not a good use of my time.”
At a meeting between the president and Microsoft founder last month, Gates suggested to Trump that he actually appoint someone to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. At this point, Gates told STAT, Trump asked Gates if he himself wanted the job. Gates did not.
Gates isn’t a scientist himself, but he is sort of… science-adjacent? His Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds projects working on issues such as climate change and infectious disease. Trump has taken longer to fill the science adviser position than any other modern president, and so the de facto leader of the OSTP is a 31-year-old political scientist. Since the OSTP is supposed to help the president on issues related to environment, engineering, and technology, it seems like a political scientist might be the wrong type of scientist. But that’s not even the worst appointment in the Trump administration, considering he appointed an ExxonMobil CEO to be his Secretary of State and that his Department of Energy pick was a man who wanted to destroy the Department of Energy.
Most recently, the science adviser was John Holdren, who helped Obama out during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Now, says Holdren, we “appear to have a president now who resists facts,” which is correct. The president has repeatedly been anti-science. For example, he wants to leave the Paris climate accords, even though scientists say that even following the accords isn’t enough to fix climate change.
Even if Trump appointed someone, it’s unclear how much good they could really do. Signing up to work with him mostly seems to invite ridicule and unceremonious firing. Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn was seen as one of “the adults in the room” that could guide Trump to more reasonable policy. Trump didn’t listen to Cohn, who then resigned over Trump’s policy of steel tariffs.
Of course, the position should still be filled with someone who knows their stuff and having one more voice of reason can’t hurt. But the best scientific credentials won’t guarantee that a science adviser will be effective in changing Trump’s mind, as he seems only to listen to people he thinks are powerful and rich. So maybe it’s a shame for all of us that Gates doesn’t want the job. But in the end, it’s unclear whether Trump himself knows what he wants. As Gates says: “I didn’t put him to the test, whether that was a serious thing or not. He probably himself didn’t know if he was serious.”