December 1, 2016
By David Wojick, Ph.D.
Synopsis: We begin the process of tracking the new Trump Administration (as well as Congress) with regard to the uncertain future of the US Public Access Program.
The transition team
To begin with, the Trump Administration has gotten off to a very slow start. The transition team did very little work prior to the election, which is unusual. Federal funding is available to both major candidates as soon as they are nominated. Romney's transition team spent a reported 8.9 million dollars before the election. The Trump team has spent very little.
The transition team has a lot to do. To begin with it is supposed to vet applicants and job holders for about 4,000 federal positions which are held "at the pleasure of the President." About 1,000 of these positions require Senate approval, so the vetting is not trivial.
There is a transition team for each Cabinet Department and the major non-Cabinet agencies, like EPA and the SEC. In addition to vetting applicants, the teams are supposed to meet with the senior civil servants of each Dept. and agency, to be briefed on how these huge and complex organizations actually operate. Something as small as Public Access may not be noticed.
Each team is also supposed to begin to formulate specific policies for their organization. Given how vague Trump as been on policy specifics, this may not be easy. Or it may mean that the teams have pretty broad latitude when it comes to specific agency policies. There seems to be little information as to who makes up each agency team, so their views on public access are unknown at this point.
Moreover, the head of the Energy Department transition team was recently replaced, which has to slow things down a bit. DOE has been a leader in developing the Public Access Program.
The Science Advisor and OSTP
Then there is the issue of OSTP and the memo creating the Public Access Program. The Office of Science and Technology Policy is part of the Executive Office of the President. It is headed by the President's Science Advisor.
At one extreme the memo might simply be rescinded. President Obama issued a great many orders and executive memos, in direct defiance of the Republican led Congress. Many of these orders seem likely to be rescinded and Public Access might get caught in the wave and wiped out. Then too, Republicans tend to be pro-business and the publishers may well lobby against the Public Access Program.
On the other hand, a public access policy is relatively non-partisan, as well as being politically attractive. The new OSTP head might even decide to strengthen the program, especially because Trump is being labeled as anti-science by his opponents.
The OSTP situation is also quite fluid at this point. No Science Advisor has even been proposed at this point, that I know of. The vast majority of academic scientists are Democrats. The last Republican president took a year in office before nominating a Science Advisor, and he was a Democrat.
The American science community is watching this issue very closely, even though the Science Advisor and OSTP have very little actual authority. The Public Access Program is really something of an exception in this regard, but it is after all largely an administrative program. In the interim, OSTP has over a hundred employees so it will keep operating. So will the Public Access Program if the memo is not rescinded.
In fact the slower the Trump people are in taking over, the longer the Government will be run by civil servants who will favor the status quo. This will be true of all the Departments and Agencies. The worst case scenario would be if OSTP were eliminated altogether. There is some discussion of this, but it seems unlikely as a political strategy. It would be viewed as a direct attack on science and it has no upside.
On the other hand, given that their internal Public Access Programs are well established, the agencies could decide to continue them, absent the OSTP memo, or even OSTP.