Artist's conception of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft exploring asteroid Bennu.
An exit memo from the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy calls for progress in 20 frontiers of science and technology. It encourages further work on grand challenges such as NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge that aims to find asteroid threats and determine how to deal with them. Pictured is an artist’s conception of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft exploring asteroid Bennu to determine its physical and chemical properties, which could be critical to knowing if action to prevent an impact with Earth is needed. Credit: NASA

With the Obama administration coming to a close on 20 January, an exit memo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) calls for the next administration and the new Congress to focus on investing in fundamental research and a series of other actions to foster continued science and technology innovation.

Driving further progress across “frontiers” in science and technology “will require focus by the next Administration and the next Congress,” states the memo, released on 5 January by OSTP director John Holdren and U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith.

The memo calls for actions needed in the years ahead to drive continued innovation and progress in science and technology.

The memo summarizes ways in which the Obama administration promoted science and technology and identifies 20 frontiers for further development. It “calls for actions needed in the years ahead to include all Americans in driving continued innovation and progress” in those areas, according to OSTP chief of staff Cristin Dorgelo.

Frontiers to Focus On

The frontiers include advancing climate science, addressing climate change and national security, growing a clean energy economy, and increasing the resilience of oceans against threats such as destructive fishing practices, pollution, and acidification.

In space sciences, the memo addresses frontiers of a journey to Mars in the 2030s; the U.S. commercial space market; preparedness for space hazards, including near-Earth objects and space weather; and advancing small-satellite capabilities and space science in general.

President-elect Donald Trump has expressed support for space exploration but doubts about climate change.

Strength in Diversity

“Americans continue to lead the world in our curiosity and desire to understand the world around us, which helps us innovate and improve the world around us.”

OSTP remains optimistic about America’s ongoing leadership in science and technology because of two key characteristics of Americans, according to the memo.  “Americans continue to lead the world in our curiosity and desire to understand the world around us, which helps us innovate and improve the world around us. And, Americans are exceptionally diverse and can bring a wide range of experiences and backgrounds to solving the hardest problems. Our country’s diversity continues to be the greatest source of its strength,” the memo states.

Among strategies to propel advances, the memo urges continued investment in fundamental research and top science and technology talent in the federal government, pursuing grand challenges such as NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, and increasing public access to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Response to Memo

The Trump administration “won’t put a lot of stock” in aspects of OSTP’s exit memo related to energy and environmental issues, according to H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow on environmental policy with the Heartland Institute. The Arlington Heights, Ill.–based think tank focuses on free-market solutions to social and economic problems.

Burnett criticized the Obama administration’s energy and environment policies for lack of transparency, regulatory expansion, and market interventions. Those interventions have made the United States less competitive, he said.

Referring to the Paris climate agreement, Burnett said that Trump likely would not accept advice that the United States should cut emissions significantly if China and India would operate under fewer restrictions.

Not only is the memo a “rah-rah” document for the Obama administration, Burnett added, but environmental groups may welcome it to challenge Trump on energy and environmental issues.

Agency Exit Memos

Other federal agency exit memos released early this month by the White House echoed and expanded upon themes in the OSTP document. A Department of Energy (DOE) memo stresses the need for an economy-wide approach to achieve deep decarbonization to combat climate change. DOE calls for doubling the U.S. investment in clean energy research and development and advancing policies to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The Environmental Protection Agency memo notes the nation’s significant environmental infrastructure needs, including more than $655 billion needed for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), White House urges future science and technology priorities, Eos, 98, Published on 11 January 2017.

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