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New Science Adviser Speaks on Industry Investment and Securing Research

White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier addressed the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting on Friday. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

In his first major public speech since his confirmation as the White House science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier said that American science would benefit from stronger connections between government and industry.

Since World War II, said Droegemeier, there has been “a really sharp rise in basic research being funded by the private sector” that he suggested could be leveraged to strengthen the nation’s overall research and development portfolio.

He said the surge in private investment was not in response to reduced basic research funding by the federal government, but “because American companies have the freedom to be creative and to invest and to explore new ideas.”

In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, “only the federal government could mount a response to that launch. Today, it could easily be a private company or even a startup,” said Droegemeier.

Surveys by the National Science Foundation found that in 2015 industry funding surpassed federal funding for basic research for the first time, partly as a result of reduced federal investment.

Droegemeier was confirmed as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Jan. 2, after the post had been vacant for the longest time since the position was created in 1976. Under the Trump administration, the number of OSTP staff members has fallen to about 60 people, compared to the 130 people employed in the office during the Obama administration.

On Friday at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Drogemeier, an extreme weather scientist, made just passing mention of climate change. In a Feb. 14 interview with Jeffrey Mervis of Science magazine, Droegemeier did not say whether rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are a threat to the planet, instead calling the climate system a “very, very complicated thing” that needs more research.

In his short time as OSTP director, Droegemeier said he has spoken with university presidents, government officials and association heads who “pretty much to a person” told him that securing sensitive research “is their top priority.”

Droegemeier said he will look for ways to protect research that may have national security or economic security impacts. “We want students and researchers in America to reap the benefits of an open [research] environment, but at the same time we have to take appropriate precautions to ensure that our resources do not fall into the hands of those attempting to do us harm or those who would seek to reap the benefits of our hard work without doing hard work themselves,” he said.

Droegemeier also wants to reduce “research administrative burden” on government and university scientists, saying that paperwork requirements and regulations amount to “a few billion dollars a year” of wasted time and research innovation.

“The Trump administration is absolutely, as you know, laser focused on reducing regulatory and administrative compliance burden, and like all of you, as a researcher and a former vice president for research, I know how important this is and how much it impacts our researchers directly,” Drogemeier said.

He did not mention any specific administrative tasks or regulations that his office would address.

Droegemeier was introduced at the meeting by AAAS CEO and former congressman Rush Holt, who said he hoped Droegemeier’s “accessible manner” would lead to greater access for the adviser and increased attention to science in the Trump administration.

In a 2018 statement, Holt praised Droegemeier’s bipartisan credentials working on the National Science Board during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Droegemeier has held multiple science leadership positions at the University of Oklahoma, most recently as its vice president of research, and at National Science Foundation centers.

Correction, February 20, 2019: A sentence describing Kelvin Droegemeier's comments on climate change has been corrected. He made passing mention of climate change, not no mention of climate change.