Agency ‘Exit Memos’ Urge Next Administration to Build Upon S&T Policy Initiatives

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Publication date: 
25 January 2017

Multiple “exit memos” issued in the waning days of the Obama administration recommend that the incoming administration build upon various science and technology policy initiatives launched over the last eight years.

Among their final actions, leaders of each of the Obama administration’s Cabinet-level departments and some White House offices issued “exit memos.” The documents summarize initiatives undertaken over the past eight years and provide recommendations to the incoming administration. Whether or not the Trump administration accepts these recommendations, the memos provide a synopsis of issues and policy choices that it will likely confront.

The full set of memos is available here. (Note that President Obama’s White House website is archived in its entirety here:

Office of Science and Technology Policy


OSTP Director John Holdren

(Image credit - White House)

Penned by Obama’s science advisor John Holdren and Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, OSTP’s memo classifies the administration’s S&T policy initiatives and achievements into the categories of “personal, local, national, global, and interplanetary frontiers,” a framing used in the October 2016 Frontiers Conference. Many of these items were highlighted in an earlier OSTP report that listed 100 examples of the outcomes of Obama’s S&T policy actions.

The memo concludes with a list of ten recommendations, which include actions such as continuing federal investment in basic research, recruiting more S&T talent into the government, pursuing grand challenges, broadening access to high-quality STEM education, and increasing returns on R&D investment through enhanced open access policies.

OSTP was indisputably very active under Obama—growing to its largest size ever, overseeing a wide array of interagency initiatives through the National Science and Technology Council, and convening 45 meetings of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (which Holdren co-chaired).

However, some have questioned OSTP’s effectiveness. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds OSTP, criticized the office in a recent interview with ScienceInsider. “I’d be hard-pressed to identify any tangible, specific accomplishments or achievements of the office,” he said, adding, “The president needs a science adviser to keep him posted on new developments and to give him guidance in all of those areas. But I don’t know that [OSTP] needs a large staff or a big operation.”

Department of Energy

Among its research-focused recommendations, the DOE memo advocates for doubling federal clean energy R&D funding, supporting new research commercialization initiatives, expanding the department’s links with the National Institutes of Health (as recommended by a recent advisory committee report), continuing investment in the Stockpile Stewardship Program, and building a case for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Prior to departing, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also offered some personal reflections on life as DOE secretary in an exit interview. Asked what advice he would give to his successor, Moniz stressed that one does not need to be a scientist to successfully manage the department. Rather, he said that the secretary must employ a team with diverse skill sets and must “internalize how science and technology gives this department a distinct flavor, how the 17 National Laboratories are in many ways our essential assets for applying science and technology to our problems.”

He also observed that he felt fortunate to be leading the agency at a time when DOE played a critical role in addressing two of the president’s international priorities, increasing nuclear security and developing energy innovations to address climate change. Committed to these issues to the very end, Moniz issued a statement on Jan. 16 marking the one-year anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal and released a five-year energy innovation portfolio plan on Jan. 17.

Department of Commerce

Parts of the Commerce Department memo touch on programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The memo identifies enhancing weather models, launching the GOES-R weather satellite, opening the National Water Center, creating the Climate Resilience Toolkit, and acquiring new oceanographic research vessels as key accomplishments for NOAA. The memo recommends that the agency further leverage climate data to assess the risks of climate change, make additional investments to modernize the aging oceanographic research fleet, and launch the JPSS-1 satellite in 2017.

As for NIST, the memo recommends that the agency expand the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and Manufacturing USA, a set of advanced manufacturing institutes formerly known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The memo states that the $600+ million in federal funding invested in the first nine institutes has attracted $1.3 billion in non-federal support. In the past two months, the government launched five additional institutes focused on chemical manufacturing, biopharmaceutical manufacturing, tissue biofabrication, recycling, and advanced robotics, respectively.

Departing Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker concludes the memo by endorsing a past proposal to restructure the department, writing, “I have come to believe that American businesses and the American taxpayer would be much better served by a streamlined ‘Department of Business,’ similar to the President’s 2012 government reorganization proposal.

Department of Defense

The DOD memo makes a case for continued investment in various nascent efforts, including the Third Offset strategy, Force of the Future initiative, Manufacturing USA institutes, and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) outposts. The memo also calls for modernization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and security labs as well as continued implementation of the department’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.

In his final speech as Defense Secretary, Ash Carter underscored one last time the rationale behind the array of innovation initiatives he championed, pointing in particular to the shifting center-of-gravity of technology development. “When I started my career in defense, and my career in physics for that matter, most technology of consequence originated in America, and much of that was sponsored by government, especially the Department of Defense. Now, today, we’re still major sponsors, but much more technology is commercial. The technology base is global.”

Other highlights

Office of Management and Budget: Of particular note within the memo are references to the administration’s actions to increase public access to federally funded research results, efforts of the recently created Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking, and a call to “continue to ramp-up the injection of modern technology expertise into national public policymaking and build the tech and innovation capacity of the government and nation.” Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith wrote a separate memo on this subject prior to departing.

Department of Health and Human Services: The memo has a section on “Leading in Science and Innovation” that highlights the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and Obama’s trio of biomedical research initiatives—the Cancer Moonshot, Precision Medicine, and BRAIN initiatives. However, none of the recommended actions in the memo are specific to the National Institutes of Health.

Department of Education: The memo has a section on “Making Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math a National Priority” and calls on Congress to provide the $4 billion Obama requested in support of his Computer Science for All initiative.

NASA and the National Science Foundation:  Neither issued exit memos, as they are not Cabinet-level departments.


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