After a slow start, the Trump White House is ramping up its science policy activities

President Trump waited a long time before nominating a Director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Indeed, OSTP lacked a director for over 700 days, the longest vacancy since the office was created in 1976.

This Presidency will probably not go down in history as one kind to science. But, I am not going to write about current proposals regarding the EPA. No, I will stick to telling you about OSTP activities over the past weeks. And, try to focus on some positives. Despite what any of us may think of this President, there are many good people working in the federal government, who have continued in their jobs as Presidents come and go. These people deserve our respect, and our help when they ask for it.

Kelvin Droegemeier was nominated on August 1, 2018 and—though he was easily confirmed—his confirmation did not occur until December. If he had not been confirmed by the holiday break, his nomination would have to have been made again. The AMS worked with other professional science societies to push for his confirmation, and it worked, but just in the closing hours of the 115th Congress.

Dr. Droegemeier is the 10th OSTP Director; he began his position in January 2019. Before joining the White House, he served as the Vice President for Research and Regents’ Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He is a highly-regarded scientist, with expertise in extreme weather events and numerical weather prediction. Among his scientific achievements:

  • Recipient of $40 million in research funding; author of more than 80 refereed articles and 200 conference publications;
  • Co-founder and Director of the Science and Technology Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (NSF-funded);
  • Co-founder and Deputy Director of the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sense of the Atmosphere (NSF-funded);
  • Served 2 terms on the National Science Board, the governing body of the NSF, including the last four years as Vice-Chairman (nominated by Presidents GW Bush and Obama and twice confirmed by the Senate).

Over the past six months, we have seen much more activity by the OSTP.

On October 22, President Trump reconstituted his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which is administered by OSTP. PCAST is an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President and the Executive Office of the President. Dr. Droegemeier is a member. Other PCAST members—numbering not more than 16—are from outside the federal government, and include scientists from universities and industry. On the same day, the President announced the names of the first seven members. The choices reflect the administration’s focus on technology—only one is an academic (UC Berkeley chemistry professor), and the others work at IBM, Dow, Cyclo Therapeutics, SC Johnson & Son, Bank of America, and HP Labs. On November 14, the White House announced the appointment of two additional PCAST members—one is the director of the Radar Systems and Remote Sensing Lab at the University of Kansas and the other is a professor specializing in GPS systems and an associate dean for research at Ohio State University.

PCAST members being sworn in on November 18, 2019.

None are mathematicians (as many of you know, President Obama’s PCAST also lacked mathematics). The revived PCAST held its first meeting on November 18. The photo shows the group being sworn in, which took place at the beginning of the meeting (and, I know, one person is completely obscured by the flag; it was impolite to try to get a better position!). The agenda was, broadly, to identify issues for PCAST to focus on, and generally set priorities. I attended this meeting. What did I find interesting?

  • Dr. Droegemeier discussed his plan to create a “SPEC” subcommittee. SPEC refers to students, post-docs, and early career scientists. This subcommittee will include about 20 individuals, and advise the PCAST.
  • PCAST will not write any reports over the next year. Instead, they will focus on concrete and shortish-term actions.
  • The intensity of discussions around foreigners in the US research landscape. As you might expect, some in the room are pushing on fixing what might be described, euphemistically, as the “visa situation,” while others are more focused on protecting US innovations and making sure there are no foreign “bad actors” here.
  • The lengthy discussions about STEM education, with one focus on changing the culture and messaging around early (elementary and middle school) education in mathematics. I wasn’t terribly surprised that this was discussed; Chair of the National Science Board (and computer scientist and mathematician) Diane Souvaine was leading the session in which this came up.

PCAST plans to have three or four more in-person meetings over the next year. The next one might be in February. These are open to the public and you can participate remotely. Instructions can be found at the Federal Register site; they also should be found at the PCAST homepage (this appears on the Department of Energy webpage since they fund PCAST).

Another major development is the formation, in May 2019, of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE). This committee is comprised of 4 subcommittees, on:

  • Research Security (focus on foreign interference in US research),
  • Safe and Inclusive Research Environments (combat harassment of all types),
  • Research Rigor and Integrity (replicability, reproducibility), and
  • Coordinating Administrative Requirements for Research (significantly reduce administrative work and costs).

Dr. Droegemeier views universities as key stakeholders in the US innovation ecosystem. On November 5, OSTP hosted a summit, to inform the work of JCORE. Leaders from federal funding and security agencies, research universities and institutes, medical centers, scientific societies, and industry and non-profit organizations were brought together. In addition to being updated on progress made on JCORE topics, participants discussed and gave feedback on associated policy and other actions under development, and exchanged ideas about continued engagement by the multi-sector research community. AMS Immediate Past President Ken Ribet attended, representing the AMS.

Dr. Droegemeier has supplied a summary of the Summit. In it, you find his opening remarks, and a list of “Key Takeaways.” What are some highlights for mathematics? If you look at the takeaways, which begin on page 3, you will see some themes that are continuing priorities of this administration. These include security concerns, data sharing, and regulatory flexibility.

Here, for example, is a takeaway bullet point on security:

  • Research institutions need information that will allow them to determine whether to approve or disprove proposed collaborations with foreign entities, and to advise research staff on what circumstances may affect eligibility for Federal R&D funding.

While much coming out of the White House thus far on security concerns has focused on threats, I was pleased to see this bullet point, acknowledging the importance of global science communities:

  • Success along the path from fundamental research to technology applications often requires free flow through multiple research groups and international borders.

I am personally pleased to see a focus on sexual harassment in research environments, as articulated in this bullet point:

  • As a major objective, the research enterprise should work to maximize reporting of harassment and other inappropriate behaviors. This requires addressing fears of retaliation that often prevent individuals from coming forward.

Another related bullet point is the following:

  • Providing researchers with opportunities to work with multiple mentors can help address negative power dynamics in the research environment, and can help reduce perceived risks of reporting inappropriate behaviors.

This is not the first time I have been a part of conversations suggesting that “multiple mentors” is a good model, and I hope the math community moves toward this model.

There is also this bullet point that could be relevant to us:

  • The Federal Government should leverage the work of professional societies to help inform development of common solutions for core areas (i.e., conflict of interest, universal disclosure, etc.).

The AMS is, of course, a “professional society,” so we should try to understand this point. This could point to an area of concern for the AMS—that of open access publishing. JCORE could be interested in the work of publishers (such as the AMS) for solutions. It is a fair view that research that is funded by the government (i.e., by taxpayers) should be accessible to taxpayers. And, arguments from the health sciences are indeed compelling, as you can hear around 31-32 minutes into this session, in a question posed by Manfredi La Manna, an economist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He begins his line of questioning by asking the panelists to imagine that he is an emergency medicine doctor in sub-Saharan Africa and, from this viewpoint, “what I see is that the lack of open access leads to closed coffins.” Now, that session, and many conversations in this context are about NIH as a granting agency. However, regulations pertaining to open access have been directed to groups of agencies, and the NSF is part of this group. It is no secret that this administration is considering an update to a memo issued in 2013 by President Obama’s OSTP Director, John Holdren. This Holdren memo “directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally funded research freely available to the public—generally within one year of publication.” See the AMS primer on open access for more on this topic generally, and on the embargo period in particular.

The point of this post was to give you a brief update on what is going on at the White House with regard to science policy, and how it might be relevant to the math community. So much for “brief.”




About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much 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 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 and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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