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Q&A: William Happer, Possible Science Advisor To The U.S. President

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The Scientist

The Princeton physicist told The Scientist that then-President–elect Donald Trump last month agreed with his position that climate change research has become a “cult movement.” Happer also shared his thoughts on federal research funding, demonstrators marching for science, and more.

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A Princeton physicist who has been vocal about his belief that human activity is not contributing significantly to climate change last month met with then-President–elect Donald Trump to discuss, among other things, potentially assuming the role of Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. William Happer made headlines two years ago, when he was busted by an undercover Greenpeace sting operation in which members of the environmental advocacy organization posed as consultants to fossil fuel companies and offered him money to publish results indicating the benefits of rising carbon dioxide levels and coal power. He accepted the fictitious offer.

Happer, who said he would accept the Science Advisor position “if they offered it,” spoke with The Scientist about science policy, climate change, and the Trump administration’s performance to date.

The Scientist: What types of questions regarding science did then-President–elect Trump ask you when you met in January?

William Happer For some reason we got off into the fact that his uncle, John Trump, was a physicist. I happened to know that, and I knew a bit about some of the work [John Trump] had done.

And then he asked, Well, how do we look compared to other countries, compared to Russia? I said, ‘So far, I think we’re doing fine. But, you know, there’s worldwide competition in science.’ And he was interested in that.

TS: Did climate change come up at all during that first conversation?

WH: Very briefly. I said, ‘I’m sure you know my position that I think climate change has been tremendously exaggerated—its significance. Climate is important, always has been, but I think it’s become sort of a cult movement in the last five or 10 years.’ So in just a sentence or two, I said, ‘That’s my view of it.’ And he said, Well, I agree with you. But that’s all we discussed.

TS: Were you to take the job, is there a suite of scientific or science policy issues that you would bring with you to the office?

WH: Usually presidents . . . they’re very, very busy with other things, so science policy is about the last thing they have time for, but they pay a little attention to it. And so that office should do its best to use its access to the President to get the best possible science policy for the U.S. And I guess the other important lever that that office has is that it traditionally has helped in setting the President’s budget that’s submitted to Congress every January. So the people of that office do have the privilege of working with OMB [the President’s Office of Management and Budget] as they try to divide up money that’s going to science.

TS: Would you be inclined to suggest that more money be devoted to research that probes the human contribution to climate change or less?

WH: I would be inclined to say at least keep the same level of funding for all of our observational programs—measuring atmospheric levels of CO2, measuring ocean temperature and salinity, our buoy networks, measuring atmospheric properties from satellites. I’ve always thought that we got our money’s worth from those types of measurements that are well-calibrated, well-maintained. So certainly, not everybody would agree with me. Many people feel like you ought to junk the whole climate enterprise, but I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like the information that is gathered is useful, and everyone knows climate is important. I don’t think people have very much to do with it [climate change], but it’s always been important, so why not understand it better?

TS: But would you suggest funding specific research that might seek to provide evidence for humanity’s role in climate change?

WH: One of the problems with the programs for the last 15 or 20 years was, unless you promised that your results were going to bring some sort of alarming new evidence that people were driving the planet to extinction by releasing CO2, you couldn’t get funding. That was really sick. You shouldn’t have funding decisions based on whether you expect to get alarmist results from the applicant. And that’s the way it was.

Full Interview