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New White House science director, reports: American S&T leadership increasingly through industry

March 07, 2019
By: Jason Rittenberg

In January, the U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and since the end of the partial federal government shutdown, the director and office have produced informative reports and speeches. Two common threads through these sources are emphases on continued American leadership in key tech sectors — and that this leadership will increasingly occur in conjunction with, or under the direction of, private industry.

OSTP Director’s comments

Droegemeier’s first speech as director was made to AAAS on Feb. 15 and was preceded the day before by an interview with Science. In both places, the director lays out a series of organizing principles that also serve as an explanation of the administration’s science activities to date:

  • Creating labs at universities to be primarily funded by industry and nonprofits;
  • Reducing regulations around R&D funding at universities (an alternate means of improving the indirect cost margin on federal awards, which Droegemeier has testified is too low);
  • Organizing the country’s science strategy as portfolios, rather than individual investments at the agency or project level (Congress has been encouraging NSF to use a portfolio approach with agency-wide projects since at least FY 2014, and the new AI and quantum information science efforts are starting with cross-agency coordination);
  • Initiating a quadrennial assessment of U.S. R&D investments and resources;
  • Improving the security of American inventions from foreign actors (Congress and the administration have been particularly focused on ties between federally-funded R&D and Chinese nationals); and,
  • Addressing harassment concerns at research institutions so all researchers feel welcome.

The director’s comments about university-industry partnerships have particularly caught the attention of many organizations related to American R&D. Federal spending on R&D is below the nation’s peak spending, whether one considers today’s dollars, as a share of GDP, or as a share of the federal budget. During his remarks and interview, Droegemeier challenged the assumption that this is a problem and drew a comparison to the space race in the 1950s and 1960s, arguing that such a challenge could be solved today through industry investments. As SSTI covers today, industry is increasingly funding American R&D. Non-industry performers of federal extramural research will certainly be curious to see if and how these sentiments develop into new policy from the office.

Agency reports

OSTP released its second annual “Science and Technology Highlights” report, summarizing R&D and innovation activities across the administration in 2018. Many of the highlights relate to the development of specific inventions, the convening of meetings, or the release of strategies and reports. Lab-to-market initiatives receive their own section, and the administration’s management plan’s priority for commercialization is reaffirmed.

The lab-to-market section also commits to enacting findings from NIST’s Draft Green Paper: the Administration will reduce regulatory and administrative burdens; increase private sector engagement; support entrepreneurship in R&D; develop new tech transfer tools; and improve methods of measuring the effectiveness of R&D investments.” The brief statement does not clarify if or how comments on the paper, which included a letter from SSTI, will be incorporated into these actions.

Finally, OSTP has released several planning-focused documents over the last month. In early February, the office laid out AI, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, and 5G as the key tech sectors for investment and action by the federal government. This statement was followed a few days later by an explanation of the AI initiative’s points of emphasis. Yesterday, the office added “solutions for an aging population” as another research priority.

science policy, white house