The White House issues annual science memo

Editor’s Note: Today marks 17 years since the tremendous loss of lives on the east coast of our nation. It would be difficult to post this without remarking on the pain that the survivors and families have endured since that day.

Apologies in advance; this post could be a bit in the weeds.

On July 31, the White House issued its annual memorandum (M-18-22) identifying research and development (R&D) areas that federal agencies (including the NSF) should prioritize as they develop their fiscal year 2020 budget requests. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) jointly prepare these memoranda. This one is signed by Mick Mulvaney, OMB Director, and Michael Kratsios, Deputy US Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Assistant to the President at OSTP.

It begins: “The United States is a nation of thinkers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Empowered by free-market capitalism and driven by bold ideas, Americans created an ecosystem of innovation that is the envy of the world, advancing science and technology and making the Nation prosperous and strong.” Overall, the language in this memo speaks to a strong, connected, technologically advanced, and independent America that leads all other nations. The tone brought to mind President Trump’s inaugural assertion “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.”

The Trump administration issued its first such memo (M-17-30) in August of 2017, to guide the budget process for fiscal year 2019.

How does the new version differ from the first?

This year’s version is more specific, but basically builds on the first Trump R&D memo. It suggests federal R&D funding be “focused primarily on basic and early-stage applied research,” and calls on the private sector to increasingly fund “the transfer of research discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.”

The memo identifies eight “R&D Priority Areas,” describing what the administration would like to see investment go toward:

  1. Security of the American people;
  2. American leadership in artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, and strategic computing;
  3. American connectivity and autonomy;
  4. American manufacturing;
  5. American space exploration and commercialization;
  6. American energy dominance;
  7. American medical innovation; and
  8. American agriculture.

There are also five “R&D Priority Practices,” which provide the how:

  1. Educating and Training a Workforce for the 21st Century Economy;
  2. Managing and Modernizing R&D Infrastructure;
  3. Maximizing Interagency Coordination and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration;
  4. Transferring Technology from Laboratory to Marketplace; and
  5. Partnering with Industry and Academia.

“American Military Superiority” and “American Security” were the first two priority areas listed last year. The first of these used terms including “warfighter,” “weapons and defenses,” and “battlefield.” These particular terms are gone, though national security is still central, with the White House calling for increased investment in the military, border technology, and cybersecurity. The first priority listed this year asserts, “as adversaries leverage emerging technologies to threaten the nation, it is imperative that we invest in R&D to maintain military superiority and keep the American people safe.” Recent media accounts of our current military innovations certainly corroborate this demand to modernize our military.

Here are a few other specific changes, including several relevant to the mathematical sciences community:

  • The section dedicated to “American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Sciences, and Strategic Computing” gives a new focus this year.
  • Language aiming to eliminate duplication of work done by the agencies, with an eye toward “increasing government accountability and efficiency” has been removed (though the third priority practice still points in this direction).
  • A focus on connecting all Americans via a 5G wireless network is introduced, as is the goal to deploy autonomous and unmanned vehicles.
  • “American Medical Innovation” replaces last year’s “American Health” which suggests a different approach and attitude. Lowering healthcare costs was mentioned last year but not this year; a focus on mental health and suicide prevention was introduced this year.
  • A section on “American space exploration and commercialization” has been introduced.
  • A section on “American Agriculture” has been introduced and encourages “use of embedded sensors, data analytics, and machine learning techniques” to optimize agricultural outputs while minimizing inputs.
  • A section on manufacturing has been added, to help keep jobs at home and ensure that products are made at home.
  • There is again a call for educating and training a STEM workforce, repeating the need for computer science skills and for access to education for all (including from rural and urban areas, women and from other underrepresented groups).
  • Industry and academia are called on to work together with government agencies to “help align basic research with future private sector needs.” Regulatory barriers that hamper such partnership’s successes are requested reduced.

A few random, closing observations:

  1. Many in the science community point out that Obama administration memos highlighted global climate change, and the first two Trump memos have not mentioned climate change at all. Trying to be generous, the memo does call for improved weather prediction tools, to protect before during, and after natural disasters. This call is consistent with the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier for the top spot at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. Incidentally, since I last posted, Dr. Droegemeier’s confirmation has passed from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with unanimous support. All that remains is a full Senate vote, as of now unscheduled.
  2. As I wrote in my post on December 1, 2017, the government-university-industry partnership dates to at least the Morrill Act of 1862, is ever-changing, and at least to some, is currently “out of whack.” Calls for re-envisioning this triumvirate are coming from many places including—in the last priority practice of this memo—from the White House.
  3. The White House, right now, is working on its congressionally mandated Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, under project leader Jeff Weld, Senior Policy Advisor and Assistant Director of STEM Education at OSTP. When this report comes out, it will be the second, after the first plan was published in 2013. The R&D memo published in July 2015, to guide budget requests for fiscal year 2017, refers to the 2013 plan and states that “investments in STEM education should be guided by the priorities outlined in the Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan.” Perhaps next year, once the Weld team plan is published, we will see a nod to it in the 2021 R&D memo.

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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