Q&A: William Happer, Possible Science Advisor to the President

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.

Feb 6, 2017
Bob Grant

WIKIMEDIA, GAGE SKIDMOREA 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.

See “Q&A: David Gelernter, Possible Science Advisor to the President

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.

TS: Can you provide examples of researchers or programs getting preferential funding for producing “alarmist” results?

WH: This is an anecdote, so you’ll take it for what it’s worth. But a researcher, for example, was very interested in the Arctic tern that migrates from pole to pole every year. It’s amazing, how do they have enough energy to do that? There are only so many calories you can store up in a little bird. To me, that sounds very interesting, but this researcher could not get funding for it. Some helpful friend said, ‘Well, why don’t you add to it, “Effect of climate change on migration of the Arctic tern?”’ And then it was immediately funded.

TS: When was this?

WH: I don’t know. I told you it was an anecdote, but my impression is it’s been in the last 10 years. I don’t even know whether it’s true, but I certainly know lots of other programs that simply would not exist [if they didn’t produce results that indicated a central human contribution to climate change].

TS: What are some examples of such programs?

WH: There are lots of big climate models. If you were to come up with your computer modeling, with results that indicated that increasing CO2 really doesn’t have very much effect on the climate, you would not be renewed. It’s very clear you would not be renewed.

TS: Are you suggesting there is a movement in which the federal government is trying to encourage the publication of alarming data?

WH: This cult has built up around climate, which I think is just terrible for science. It’s a little bit like the black eye that science took on things like nutrition. A lot of people now are scratching their heads. They say, I had the government telling me all this time, ‘Eat margarine, eat margarine, stop eating butter, stop eating eggs.’ So I’m stuffing myself with trans fats for 20 years and then all of a sudden, ‘No, stop, stop, we’ve changed all that.

The government should not be pushing technical information that they’re not absolutely certain about. It has very bad consequences eventually. Take the controversy now about vaccines. I personally think vaccines work. It’s just amazing. Communicable diseases, childhood diseases—they’re way, way down. Yet because the government has screwed up on so many other things that they have propagated, just having the government say that vaccines are a clear benefit, that’s enough to turn many people off now. That’s a problem I see. If we continue to promote, with government support, things that sooner or later turn out to be wrong, then the important things that are right—that you would really like the population to pay attention to—get ignored too.

TS: Would that particular issue be something you would hope to educate your potential employer on? All indications are that President Trump has that shared mistrust of vaccines.

WH: I don’t blame him, because he’s looked at the other things that the government has promoted, and they’re all these faddy political things that really weren’t true. So no wonder he’s puzzled and distrustful. Lots of people are the same as him. You ought to talk to people outside of the wine-and-cheese circuit. There are a lot of people who don’t believe the government. And that’s too bad, because who else are you going to turn to if you can’t trust the government?

TS: Would you expect resistance to your appointment?

WH: Oh yeah, of course. I would be absolutely flabbergasted if they [Democratic members of Congress] didn’t go out of their way to demonize me.

TS: How would you respond?

WH: I’d just simply tell the truth. I’m a scientist; I know a lot about some areas, and I know how to find out about others. I know how to reach out to people who really do know. And I think I could provide the best possible advice, technically related and scientifically related advice, for the administration for policy decisions that really need to get the science and technology right.

TS: Either in his public statements or in your private conversations with President Trump, did you get the impression that he does value science and evidence as a raw material for policy making?

WH: Yes, absolutely.

TS: Has there been anything specific he said to give you that impression?

WH: [Working in real estate,] he has lived with real consequences of actions that involve a lot of technology. Many others have not.

I’m exaggerating a little bit, but the last real technical president we had was Jimmy Carter. . . . He really did understand science. I’m not sure whether that was good or bad, but it certainly made it easier for scientists to talk to him. He spoke the same language.

TS: What are your thoughts on Trump’s recent executive order barring immigrants from certain countries from entering the U.S., specifically with regard to its effect on the scientific process?

WH: I’m an instrument guy and differential equation guy and stuff like that, so these are policy decisions that are only indirectly related to science. But, as best I understand it, if you have a green card, nothing happens to you.

Editor’s note: When the executive order first went into effect, green card holders from some of the countries impacted by the decree (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia)  were temporarily detained at airports.

I don’t think it [the executive order] is going to have very much effect at all on science, as far as I can see. How many people do we have from those countries who are in this country or trying to get into this country doing science?

Editor’s note: According to State Department statistics (via The Washington Post), around 90,000 people are in the U.S. on nonimmigrant or immigrant visas (which include student visas) from the seven countries impacted by the executive order.

TS: What do you think about the marches for science being planned for April?

WH: American citizens have a First Amendment right to demonstrate and petition. I don’t know whether that will be good or bad for science. I could actually see it being bad for science, just if you think about it a little bit. Because most Americans, their jobs are not as good as the jobs of scientists. If you’re a scientist, you’re working on something you like. You can’t wait to get to work. You get paid to do it. It’s a pretty good life. Whereas if you are working in just about any other profession, it’s a lot harder. You thank god it’s Friday and you get a few days off, and you can’t wait to retire.

So if you look at the spectrum of jobs, scientists have some of the best jobs in society, and they’re supported by society. They’re supported by the taxes of people who don’t like their work. And so I would worry, if I were planning this, that the broad spectrum of voters will look at these scientists marching on Washington, demanding goodness knows what . . . the impression would be that these are people who are already spoiled, they’re living in luxury, at our expense, taxpayer expense. Even that isn’t good enough for them. I’m worried that it might make scientists look like the spoiled elite.

TS: What do you expect to be the key science policy issues that will arise in the next four years?

WH: It will be very important to sort of marshal the science and technology community to do what they can for job growth in the United States. I would hope that that will not distort basic science. There’s a certain amount of science you want to do because of its intrinsic value. And so I wouldn’t want people to have to send in proposals saying, If you support this work I’m proposing to do, it will bring ‘this many’ jobs. It’s just like the silly constrains on climate: I promise I’ll bring you more alarming news about climate if you’ll fund my proposal. There has to be some science that is just pure science, irrespective of policy, and I would try to defend that.

In reality, if you think about the big changes in science and technology, most of them have been accidental. It wasn’t because the government planned it, it was sort of lucky breaks—people trying this, trying that, and, all of a sudden, something really worked like a charm. Unless people have the freedom to try things and to fail at things, then we won’t continue to get these lucky breaks.