In his first major speech since being sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on 11 February, Kelvin Droegemeier said that the United States is entering a new “bold era” in science that recognizes the driving role of the private sector along with the federal government.
“There is literally no better time in the history of this planet, or any better place on Earth, to be engaged in the quest for scientific knowledge and understanding than right here, right now in America,” said Droegemeier, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C., on 15 February.
Droegemeier also said that “science and technology are alive and well in the Trump administration.” He pointed to a number of Trump administration science and technology initiatives, including restarting the National Space Council, issuing a report on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, and releasing a decadal vision document for research needs in ocean science and technology. However, Droegemeier did not address criticism of the administration for its views and actions on climate policies and for its environmental rollbacks, nor did he take any questions from the audience or reporters following his remarks.
Droegemeier is a respected atmospheric scientist and expert on extreme weather who previously was vice president of research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He served for 12 years as a member of the U.S. National Science Board and was its vice chairman from 2012 to 2016.
Outlining the Foundations of a New Era in Science
In his speech, Droegemeier recommended several “foundational pillars” for this new second era in science and technology, which he said follows the post–World War II era. The first pillar, he said, is fully understanding the country’s research and development (R&D) ecosystem in the context of a multisector enterprise—the federal government, academia, industry, and nonprofit sectors—and broad thematic portfolios that take into account efforts by those sectors.
The path requires thinking differently about research and development, he said. “The portfolio approach will allow for a thoughtful and effective allocation of federal resources—especially for basic early stage research, which is something the government must always play a vital role in—but now viewed through the lens of work being funded in the same areas by the private sector, by nonprofits, and by the academic community itself,” he said.
The second pillar includes leveraging “the collective strength of each sector in our R&D ecosystem” through innovative partnerships on areas such as research projects and workforce development. Droegemeier suggested the “alpha institutes” could be developed to serve as scientific crucibles for researchers from various sectors “to really pursue absolutely transformational ideas on some of the biggest challenges that face humanity today, like space exploration, climate change, eradicating disease, and making it possible for people to live longer and healthier lives.”
The third pillar, Droegemeier said, is “ to ensure that our research environments are safe, welcoming, and accommodating, free from harassments of all kind, able to attract and retain the best and highly diverse talent, provide security for our national interest, and maximize the contributions of our collective intellectual endeavors.” He said that “preventing sexual and other forms of harassment is a community-wide effort,” and he pledged to work with the science community “to tackle this issue head-on and to fix it.”
Droegemeier said that another of his priorities is to ensure that U.S. research and technology resources are not stolen or fall into the hands of enemies.
He also emphasized reducing “unnecessary administrative burdens that divert researchers’ time and attention away from innovation and discovering,” which he said amounts to a few billion dollars annually. “I’m talking not about the burdens and the actual compliance activities that are important and relevant,” he said. “I’m talking about the ones that are known to be unnecessary and wasteful. The Trump administration is absolutely, I think you know, laser focused on reducing regulatory and administrative compliance burden.”
However, Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Eos that that he was disappointed in Droegemeier’s discussion about reducing regulatory compliance. “One person’s unnecessary regulation is another person’s protection against harassment or safety or misuse of funds or public health. I think it’s really depressing to bring the idea of regulatory rollback into the science enterprise. There are ways to do things better, but it’s not this ‘let’s get rid of regulations’ mantra,” he said.
Rosenberg also criticized Droegemeier for not talking about the administration’s attacks on science. “He didn’t talk about the science in federal agencies that actually underpins most of the policy and regulatory work that is being devastated in this administration,” Rosenberg said. “He didn’t talk about sidelining science. Our recent report shows 80 attacks on science in this administration.” The report, “The State of Science in the Trump Era,” outlines a number of administration measures, including efforts to roll back regulations on clean car standards, methane standards for the oil and gas industry, and pesticides, among other areas.
Several former OSTP directors told Eos that Droegemeier is a very capable and talented scientist and science administrator but that he has his work cut out for him. “Two years in, a lot of the organization and lines of communication have been set, which will make it harder for Kelvin Droegemeier to be the director of OSTP and have a strong voice if he doesn’t have a direct pipeline to the president. Droegemeier has to ensure that,” said former acting OSTP director Rosina Bierbaum, referring to Droegemeier taking office more than 2 years after the start of the Trump administration. Bierbaum is professor and dean emerita at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, which is now the School for Environment and Sustainability. She added that the science issues that Droegemeier wants to pursue “have to, of course, be things that fit in with the presidential initiatives.”
John Holdren, who served as President Barack Obama’s science adviser and OSTP director, told Eos that Droegemeier “is a very capable guy” who “understands climate science and is very enthusiastic about STEM education and about increasing investments in R&D.”
“I don’t know what he’s going to be able to achieve in personal persuasion of President Trump. If he succeeds in that domain, more power to him,” said Holdren, professor of environmental policy and codirector of the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “I can’t predict what’s going to happen there. But what I can predict is that there is a lot of good work to be done in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and its roles in pulling together science and technology capacities from across the administration and helping getting them focused on national needs in the public interest. There’s a lot of good work that he can get done, even if he does not end up having great access to President Trump.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer