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White House Science Adviser Outlines Game Plan to Grow Innovation

Assistant Director to Be Brought Aboard

Kelvin Droegemeier
Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spoke at AAAS headquarters Thursday. |

As part of an 18-month plan to “unleash discovery and innovation,” the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will soon bring on an assistant director for academic engagement, said Kelvin Droegemeier during a keynote address Thursday.

“I like to say that the fundamental mission of OSTP is to ensure that the American science and technology enterprise leads the world, pure and simple,” Droegemeier said at the 44th annual AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum, hosted over two days by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The new assistant director will work to maintain this leadership by relieving researchers of burdensome federal grant requirements that hold back scientific advancement.

The government must ease the stipulations it attaches to research grants extended by federal agencies, Droegemeier said. While certain compliance requirements, including those covering human subject research and radiation safety, are “extremely important,” there are others that are “unnecessarily hampering the ability of our scientists, engineers and scholars to do research,” standing in the way of scientific advancement.

“I’m coming into OSTP to change that,” said Droegemeier on the four-month anniversary of his confirmation as director of the office. “I didn’t come here to keep the lights on. I came here to make a difference.”

Droegemeier also said that OSTP is working on a comprehensive assessment of the future of the national science and technology enterprise, an analysis that will look forward three decades, something he said will be a first for the office.

“It’s important that we play the long game,” he said. “I am not talking about changing the budget process. I am talking about thinking about where we are going in a holistic way.”

He defined the enterprise in much of the same terms as he did during his first major public speech following his confirmation as White House science adviser, at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting, stressing the increasingly important role played by private companies in funding and conducting research. He was careful, though, not to downplay the continued need for “robust” federal spending on research and “high-risk, high-reward activities.”

“We really need to partner across the spectrum of our four components — industry, government, academia and nonprofits — in much more effective ways,” he said. “We’re kind of thinking about turning the page here to think of the enterprise somewhat differently, as a connected set of elements that are all extraordinarily powerful.”

Using a familiar example, Droegemeier noted that while only the federal government could mount a response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, today, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and other private companies are going into space. Innovation partnerships among government, academia, nonprofits and the private sector parties present a way forward, he said.

The idea of industry playing a larger role in scientific research is a theme that has been echoed in all three of President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposals. The president’s fiscal year 2020 budget request included a $12.7 billion, or 16%, reduction to nondefense R&D spending.

“Industry is the primary innovator in this country, but much of that innovation tends to be incremental rather than disruptive,” wrote Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, in a 2017 report. “Government investment often serves as a foundation, complement, and catalyst for industry. … Typically, the government and industrial roles in the innovation process are not substitutes for one another. Given these characteristics of the system, a decline in public R&D may well mean less R&D in the aggregate.”

During a Q&A session, Droegemeier was asked why, given the goal of preserving U.S. preeminence in science and technology, the president continues to propose double-digit budget cuts to major research agencies.

“The president is very mindful of the debt that we have” Droegemeier said. “And he has priorities,” including those articulated in his budget for “industries of the future, for which there are investments in things like AI, quantum information science and advanced manufacturing.”

“We absolutely have to have robust federal budgets, but on the other hand, if we only focus on that, we’re missing the big picture,” he said. “When you leverage the federal investments of over $130 billion against everything else, we have a really, spectacularly powerful enterprise. … That’s how we can really maintain our leadership.”