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Latest White House science memo downplays tech transfer

September 19, 2019

Each year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) produces a memo to direct the administration’s R&D priorities. The office recently released its first such directive under its new director, Kelvin Droegemeier, who was appointed to the position under President Donald Trump. As described by Science, this year’s description of priority research areas “hews closely” to the administration’s prior directives. The section addressing actions to affect federal R&D, however, places less emphasis on technology transfer than in other statements by this administration.

OSTP director Droegemeier’s memo does not ignore the subject of technology transfer altogether. The final of five action areas directs agencies to prioritize “strategic multisector partnerships.” Both advancing “regional collaboration for innovation economies, such as those in Opportunity Zones,” and, furthering “CAP Goal 14 to ‘Improve Transfer of Federally-Funded Technologies from Lab-to-Market” are included among a list of four ways agencies can meet this priority.

The “CAP Goal” is a reference to a cross-government priority of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which co-signs the OSTP’s directive. Previous OSTP directives have more clearly reflected the elevation of this issue. The 2018 memo put “transferring technology from laboratory to marketplace” as a section header and directed agency budgets to “prioritize and highlight lab-to-market initiatives.” Further, a separate section on industry partnerships addressed aligning earlier-stage research with industry needs in order to achieve faster introduction of innovation to the market.

This de-emphasis of technology transfer aligns with Droegemeier’s first public comments as director. Earlier this year, he laid out a vision of American R&D that would be heavily reliant on industry and nonprofits. Limiting federal R&D more often to basic research and expecting industry to be more active earlier, would also entail less of an emphasis on technology transfer by the agencies.

While a directive by OSTP and OMB should carry a strong signal across the federal government, the impact of this memo on the ultimate budgets and actions of the agencies is uncertain at this time. Despite the clarity of previous priority statements, recent White House budgets have requested reduced or zero funding for many R&D and innovation initiatives. However, Congress has continued to fund these activities at increased levels.

white house, research