October 25, 2020

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‘Very disappointed.’ Trump’s science adviser has left U.S. researchers wanting more | Science

Kelvin Droegemeier arrived at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in January 2019.

Stephen Voss

For most U.S. researchers, President Donald Trump’s decision to wait 18 months before nominating meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) confirmed their belief that his administration had little regard for the value of science in setting policy. But they applauded the July 2018 selection of a career academic and university administrator, and they hoped Droegemeier’s genial manner and reputation as a team player might produce some small victories for the research community.

But 2 years later, in the runup to the November election, those cheers have been replaced by private handwringing. Observers say there is scant evidence that Droegemeier, who also holds the unofficial title of the president’s science adviser, has tried to mitigate any of the administration’s most controversial policies relating to science and innovation. The list includes its chaotic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, rolling back a slew of environmental regulations, restricting immigration, and proposing deep cuts in the budgets of most federal research agencies.

Even small victories have so far proved elusive. Droegemeier promised to streamline and improve how the federal government manages academic research. But an interagency panel he created shortly after taking office—the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE)—has yet to announce consensus on any of several pressing issues.

Droegemeier declined to be interviewed or answer questions from Science about his 20 months on the job. However, in a brief email he touted the administration’s accomplishments and asserted that “President Trump values research and the great work of scientists.”

His meager track record has led some colleagues to wonder why he decided to leave the University of Oklahoma, where he was vice president for research and a longtime faculty member, to serve Trump. “For me, the question for Kelvin is: ‘Why did you think that being science adviser to President Trump was a good idea?’” says Arden Bement, a former director of two federal science agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology—under former President George W. Bush.

A belated arrival

Droegemeier’s nomination was greeted with sighs of relief.

“It could have been a lot worse,” says one policy specialist, referring to rumors that the White House was vetting candidates far outside the scientific mainstream. “He was at the top of our list,” says another university lobbyist. (Science spoke to more than a dozen experts for this story, all of whom requested anonymity out of concern that their comments might hinder future interactions with the administration.)

Research advocates liked that Droegemeier was a product—and staunch defender—of a system of federal support for academic research created at the end of World War II that had helped make the United States the unquestioned global leader in science and technology. He was also a familiar face, having spent 12 years on the National Science Board, which oversees NSF.

Children joined President Donald Trump when he issued a 2017 memo on improving access to science and computer education.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

His predecessor at OSTP during former President Barack Obama’s administration, physicist John Holdren, had served a president who had memorably promised “to restore science to its rightful place” in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences. Armed with that implicit endorsement of OSTP, Holdren nearly doubled the size of the office’s staff, to some 120 people.

Holdren recruited such eminent academics as Nobel laureate Carl Wieman to complement the traditional cadre of scientists on loan from other government agencies. He also managed a very active body of outside scientific luminaries, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), commissioning reports he used to seed initiatives on topics ranging from combating antimicrobial resistance to the future of cities.

Keeping ocean research afloat

The exodus of Obama hires after Trump’s election led to widespread media reports that OSTP had closed up shop. Although that was never the case, it did assume a much lower profile. PCAST lay dormant for nearly 3 years, and OSTP staffers have spent much of their time not on new projects, but on producing reports on topics mandated by Congress. Not surprisingly, those reports have often rejected approaches favored by Obama and substituted language more in line with the policies of the current administration.

Ocean policy is a good example. In 2010, the Obama administration issued an oceans strategy that emphasized the need to confront climate change and protect ocean ecosystems. To that end, OSTP led an interagency task force that catalyzed various agency initiatives, including plans for greater regulation of federal waters.

In contrast, climate change was barely mentioned in the 2018 ocean plan by the Trump administration. Instead, the plan emphasized the role of federal waters in economic development, including mining the sea floor, and jettisoned Obama-era approaches that some state governments viewed as trampling on their authority.

By reading between the lines, however, one could still find support for Obama-era policies that favored more, and better coordinated, marine research. “There’s been a shift from climate to mineral exploration,” one lobbyist says, “and conservation has been replaced by talk of the blue economy. But they have kept the basic science component pretty much intact.”

Meanwhile, Congress also played a major role in maintaining support for marine research by rejecting repeated requests by the president to cut science spending at mission agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lobbyists say Deerin Babb-Brott, who joined OSTP during the Obama administration and played a major role in drafting Trump’s ocean policy, deserves credit for helping career staff at the affected agencies repackage current efforts so they aligned with the new administration’s rhetoric. The word “climate,” for example, disappeared from some project titles, and budget summaries played up the research’s value to economic development.

Research agencies “played the hand they were dealt,” one lobbyist says. “And they benefited from the fact that basic research enjoys bipartisan support.”

New direction on training

OSTP has played a major role in redefining the federal role in science education and training during the current administration. A December 2018 strategic plan assembled by Jeffrey Weld, a science educator on leave from a state job in Iowa, puts heavy emphasis on the transition from school to work, including apprenticeship programs at the community college level and partnerships with industry to ensure a technically savvy workforce. It pays less attention to some of the priorities of the Obama administration, including training new science and math elementary and secondary school teachers and ensuring an adequate supply of Ph.D.s to maintain the vaunted U.S. academic research enterprise.

The plan dovetails with workforce initiatives championed by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s push for the private sector to play a larger role in education. But some education experts question the administration’s commitment to improving the scientific workforce and worry the strategic plan is actually part of a broader attack on public institutions, including universities.

Weld returned to Iowa a few months after Droegemeier arrived at OSTP, however, and the administration has put little effort into implementing its vision. A congressionally mandated advisory committee on science, technology, engineering, and math was convened in July 2019, more than a year behind schedule, but it has been nearly moribund. And the president’s most recent budget request would slash $500 million from the $3 billion that a dozen federal agencies now spend each year on science education—and eliminate the NASA office that funds most of its education programs.

Appeal to “American values”

JCORE also appears to have lost steam after a much-ballyhooed beginning. In May 2019, Droegemeier combined two existing interagency committees to provide a focal point for ongoing White House efforts to harmonize federal policies affecting academic science. Although the work of JCORE and its four subcommittees—aimed at preserving scientific integrity, reducing the reporting burden on federal grantees, increasing equity and inclusion in science, and rooting out sexual harassment—might seem like the quintessential bureaucratic exercise, Droegemeier has said repeatedly that its purpose is nothing less than to uphold “American values” in a global competition for scientific supremacy.

“Operating with integrity, openness, and honesty—that’s exactly what we do,” Droegemeier told a gathering of academic leaders at a White House summit in the fall of 2019 in which he outlined the goals of JCORE. “Unfortunately, some other nations do not share America’s values.”

President Donald Trump examined a drone during a 2017 White House summit on emerging technologies.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

That appeal to patriotism fits well with the administration’s “America first” rhetoric on everything from trade to immigration policy. But science policy specialists say it casts every tweak to the U.S. research enterprise as a battle between the forces of good and evil and raises the political ante. That’s especially problematic, they say, when it applies to relations with China, which Trump has portrayed as the country’s mortal enemy on everything from trade to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some lobbyists say Droegemeier’s well-intentioned effort to fine-tune federal policies that govern academic research has run afoul of Trump’s blunt attacks on key elements of that system, such as open borders and the free exchange of ideas. For example, the administration has also moved to limit the ability of some students from China and other nations to study in the United States.

“His voice is being drowned out by the president,” one university lobbyist says. “It’s perfectly legitimate to say that we should expect foreign scientists to abide by well-established codes of conduct. But we need a rational, targeted approach. Instead, this administration keeps sending a signal that we don’t want them to come at all, and that we don’t trust them to play by the rules.”

That harsh rhetoric has blocked progress on changes under consideration by JCORE, observers say. A plan to harmonize federal policies on what grantees must disclose about their ties to foreign governments, for example, has failed to surface despite Droegemeier’s repeated assertion that it is imminent. A companion document on how universities can track foreign affiliations by faculty members and assess their risks is also reportedly close to being released.

Droegemeier certainly hasn’t lost interest in the topic. On 10 September Virginia Commonwealth University hosted the first of what he told Science is “a series of virtual, regional webinars with dozens of universities to describe our progress in research security and to discuss the road ahead.” But the presentation featured the same PowerPoint slides he has been using for months. And university officials are getting restless.

“He came in all fired up, promising to make things happen,” one lobbyist says about Droegemeier. “But so far nothing has come out of it, and the research community is very disappointed. Another science policy specialist adds, “I give him an A for effort, and an F for performance.”

The Kratsios factor

Research advocates do praise OSTP for helping focus the nation’s attention on artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS). Those two fields are part of a handful of so-called “Industries of the Future” that the Trump administration has targeted as areas in which the United States must maintain scientific preeminence to maintain a strong economy and safeguard national security. The idea enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.

Droegemeier often mentions the initiative in his speeches, and he wrote to Science that “the Trump Administration has made substantial strides in funding QIS and AI and are on track to double spending in both areas, which includes fundamental science.” But science lobbyists say the real mover and shaker behind the initiative has been Michael Kratsios, a scientific neophyte who was nominally in charge of OSTP for the first 2 years of the Trump administration.

Michael Kratsios, the federal government’s chief technology officer, gave a keynote talk at this year’s high-tech expo in Las Vegas.

Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kratsios is a former aide to high-tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Trump’s most vocal Silicon Valley supporter during the 2016 campaign. And he arrived at OSTP in the spring of 2017 at the tender age of 30.

“He came into the job knowing less about science than any previous OSTP head,” one university lobbyist says. “But he was eager to learn, and he listens. He’s also figured out how to use his connections to advance the administration’s agenda.”

Kratsios’s performance has apparently pleased senior Trump officials. In June 2019, he was named U.S. chief technology officer. One year later, despite his lack of a technical degree, Kratsios also became acting head of the Pentagon’s research and development programs. He replaced Michael Griffin, an aerospace engineer and former NASA administrator under Bush, who resigned to take an industry position.

Kratsios has also struck a much higher public profile than Droegemeier. He was front and center as the White House recently trumpeted a new network of AI and QIS centers, and last month he accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a visit to Greece, where Pompeo inked a new bilateral science agreement with that country. In contrast, Droegemeier has done no official travel during the pandemic, according to an OSTP spokesperson, nor has he appeared in person at any public events.

Sizing up OSTP

The size of the OSTP staff has returned to what it was under the Bush administration—about 60 people. Droegemeier says they comprise “a deep bench of exceptional scientists who work tirelessly on dozens of policy streams—from harmful algal blooms to space weather, from artificial intelligence to biotechnology, from ocean science and technology to the prevention of veteran suicide.”

At the same time, Droegemeier has not attracted the type of seasoned academics who have traditionally held senior positions, and it’s an open question whether he has even tried to do so. Although OSTP has slots for four Senate-approved associate directors, only one, for technology, has been appointed—and Kratsios also holds that title. The result is an OSTP devoid of scientific heavyweights that could help him explain the administration’s policies to a research community that has become increasingly hostile to the Trump administration.

Some policy observers give Droegemeier credit for preventing the White House from abolishing PCAST, which historically has given the external research community a seat at the science policy–making table. But PCAST has gotten off to a very slow start. It has met twice since its debut in November 2019, and it is still four members short of its full complement of 16. (Seven members attended the first meeting.) To date its only report reinforces the administration’s message on “strengthen[ing] American leadership in Industries of the Future.”

PCAST’s meager track record doesn’t bother Droegemeier, who feels that meetings and reports are the wrong metric to use in assessing the president’s commitment to science and, by extension, his own performance at OSTP.

“One thing you should know about this administration is that it [doesn’t care] about having endless meetings or writing an endless number of reports,” he told members of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), to which he belongs, at their annual meeting in December 2019. “It’s about taking action to make a difference. And I think that’s a breath of fresh air to all of us.”

Weathering a storm

Of course, many in that massive AGU audience are fierce opponents of much of what the Trump administration has done. Some of those steps predate Droegemeier’s arrival, including withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. But other policies have continued after Droegemeier came on board, including attempts to dismantle a panoply of environmental regulations and make deep budget cuts at most federal research agencies, as well as changes in immigration policy that could seriously crimp the continued flow of foreign scientific talent into the country. Some scientists are also disappointed that Droegemeier has remained publicly silent when Trump or his top officials blatantly misrepresent or lie about established science.

A recent case in point was his invisibility after Trump told California officials that the wildfires raging in the state would subside when the weather “cools” and that “I don’t think science knows” whether human-caused climate change is contributing to fiercer fire seasons. Droegemeier also kept his head down after Trump apparently used a marker to doctor an official forecast predicting the path of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, and the White House tried to silence federal forecasters who pushed back.

“Kelvin knew that his advice would not be welcome, and that he might even get fired if he spoke out,” one lobbyist says about the 2019 incident, known as Sharpiegate. “So it wasn’t that he was muzzled. He just decided to keep quiet.”

Droegemeier has said the president’s map editing did not warrant the harsh criticism he has received from scientists. But most researchers view it as one more example of Trump’s disregard for scientific evidence in making policy.

“A meteorologist who accepts [White House] interference in a weather forecast—that’s just not acceptable,” one lobbyist says. “Everybody likes Kelvin. But he’s a good person allowing terrible things to happen.”

The limits of power

Despite Droegemeier’s position as head of OSTP and his unofficial role as presidential science adviser, observers concede it may be unrealistic to expect him to wield much influence. Congress created OSTP in 1976—and made it answerable to legislators—after former President Richard Nixon eliminated the position of White House science adviser and terminated a presidential science advisory panel. Ever since, academics have debated how much an OSTP director can shape the highly decentralized U.S. system of supporting research.

“When you’re sitting at OSTP, you hope that everybody will listen to you. But when you’re at an agency, you want to be left alone,” says one senior federal science manager who has done at stint at OSTP.

However, science mavens agree the most important factor in the equation is the president’s attitude toward science.

“Some administrations care a lot about science, and some don’t,” one veteran policy wonk says. “And for this administration, science is not a priority.”

Its low status may explain why OSTP hasn’t played a larger public role in the administration’s most pressing science-related challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. Behind the scenes, the office has convened meetings of national science advisers from around the world and helped create an open research data set of papers relating to the coronavirus.

One instance in which Droegemeier did go to bat for the academic community was after the pandemic shut down labs and campuses this spring. Universities wanted the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to bend federal rules so they could continue to tap federal grants to pay scientists even if their research projects were on hold.

“Kelvin played a big role in conveying the message that we needed some relief,” one university administrator says. OSTP declined to comment on whether Droegemeier interceded on the community’s behalf, but “the fact that OMB moved so quickly suggests that it was already aware of the problem,” the administrator says.

Trump’s indifference to science may also have protected the bottom line of many federal research agencies. “In terms of funding, remarkably little has changed,” one academic says. “Congress has resisted most of [Trump’s] proposed cuts, and research budgets haven’t suffered. Regulatory agencies responsible for issues that he cares about have suffered a crisis of confidence. But that isn’t unique to Trump; we saw it under [former presidents Ronald] Reagan and Bush, too.”

Resisting the pitch

Despite Droegemeier’s shortlist of achievements at OSTP, most observers feel the research community is better off for having him at the helm. His low profile has helped him escape the wrath of his famously mercurial boss, they say, and avoid White House backstabbing. And many believe he’s still fighting the good fight.

As proof, they point to the most recent annual description of the administration’s research priorities. The 14 August memorandum from OSTP and OMB for the next fiscal year reiterates the primacy of “Industries of the Future,” fueled by the rapidly growing investment in AI and quantum research, and also encourages agencies to invest in training, cybersecurity, energy, and environmental research. “Those could have been written by the Obama White House,” one lobbyist says.

Despite his role in crafting that supportive rhetoric, some close observers of U.S. science policy question whether Droegemeier’s presence has really benefited the research community. “If the position [of science adviser] had remained vacant, there would have been no loss,” one lobbyist says. “I’d be happy to let the agencies continue what they’re already doing.”

The fundamental problem, the lobbyist says, is that Droegemeier is trying to sell an imaginary product. “He’s been a happy face to the scientific community. But I don’t think he’s persuaded anybody that there is anything to be happy about.”