National Science and Technology Council Sprinting to the Finish Line with New Releases

Share This

Publication date: 
6 January 2017

The National Science and Technology Council has increased the pace of its report releases during the waning days of the Obama administration. Recent releases address national disaster preparedness and resilience, open access to federally supported research, Arctic research, and the use of alternatives to radioisotopic sources, among other policy priorities.

As the Obama administration comes to a close, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has been issuing a spate of policy documents addressing issues of longstanding interest to the White House. Chaired by the president, NSTC operates through a committee structure that draws on expertise from across the federal government. In addition to developing policy documents, NSTC is a central mechanism through which the executive branch coordinates policy relating to its scientific and technological activities.

New releases address role of science in disaster preparedness

Preparedness for natural disasters, large-scale accidents, and attacks has been a major White House focus since March 2011, when President Obama issued a presidential policy directive on the subject. Over the last few years, NSTC has been working to integrate the government’s scientific and technical programs into a comprehensive national preparedness policy framework.

A new report, “Identifying Science and Technology Opportunities for National Preparedness,” was produced by NSTC’s National Preparedness Science and Technology Task Force, which was chartered in November 2014. The report provides a general outline of the kinds of hazards to which science and technology can respond, and the different ways in which S&T can contribute to disaster preparedness. It also identifies three “multi-hazard categories”:

  • Biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear hazards;
  • Geological and meteorological hazards; and
  • Space hazards

The report highlights policy issues common to hazards within each category, noting the particularly unique issues relating to space hazards, meaning space weather and near-Earth object (NEO) hazards.

As reported in FYIs 2016 #64 and #133, NSTC issued a National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan in October 2015, which the Obama administration has since worked to implement. Now, NSTC’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound NEOs (DAMIEN) has just released a National NEO Preparedness Strategy, with an Action Plan expected to appear soon.

The new strategy addresses aspects of NEO preparedness spanning from the detection of asteroids and other NEOs to post-impact recovery. With respect to detection and tracking, NASA has been surveying NEOs since the 1990s. The current survey goal, set in 2005, is to detect 90 percent of all objects greater than 140 meters in diameter by 2020. That effort is currently “several years behind schedule.” The strategy suggests ways, including the use of a space-based observatory, that the government can expedite the survey and expand it to include smaller objects.


An illustration of progress that various NEO surveys have made in discovering new asteroids over time.

An illustration of progress that various NEO surveys have made in discovering new asteroids over time.

(Image credit – NASA)

From NASA/JPL, public domain

Notably, as reported in FYI 2016 #158, the latest NASA authorization bill, which the last Congress failed to pass, would have directed NASA to assess its ability to accelerate and expand its survey. Also, NASA has just granted a one-year extension of early development funding to NEOCam, a space-based observatory specifically designed to detect and characterize NEOs. However, although a finalist, NEOCam was not one of the two Discovery-class missions that NASA selected on Jan. 4 to proceed toward launch.

Other preparedness-related reports that NSTC issued last month were an implementation roadmap for ensuring the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure, and a review of national S&T capabilities for defense against biological attack.

Open access, Arctic research among other issues addressed

NSTC’s IWG on Open Data Sharing Policy has released a short report entitled “Principles for Promoting Access to Federal Government-Supported Scientific Data and Research Findings through International Scientific Cooperation.” The principles identified in the report summarize the existing policy of the federal government concerning open access to data and publications as applied in the context of international scientific cooperation. The report affirms that the 2013 memorandum, “Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research,” continues to represent federal policy for ensuring open access to publications within one year of their original publication.

The Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, which has been under NSTC since 2010, has released its new five-year Arctic Research Plan covering the period 2017–2021. The plan revolves around nine research goals, which encompass atmospheric, oceanographic, glaciological, and ecological studies, as well as research relating to the health and well-being of residents of the Arctic region. The plan updates the previous iteration, issued in February 2013, and is designed to be responsive to the rapidly changing climatic conditions at far-northern latitudes.

The IWG on Alternatives to High-Activity Radioactive Sources, which was chartered in June 2015, has issued a set of best practices for transitioning from the use of radioactive sources to non-radioisotopic technologies. Radioactive sources presently have a number of applications, especially in medical diagnostics, therapeutics, and research, which can now be accomplished through means such x-ray irradiation. Primarily due to concerns about radiological attack, the federal government aims to transition away from the use of radioisotopes where practical. The new document outlines means that agencies can use to encourage this transition, including outreach, supporting R&D, and offering inducements to grant applicants.

Additional recent NSTC releases address disease transmission; biological and ecosystem observation; ocean monitoring, mapping, and research; and medicolegal death investigations. The NSTC’s website currently provides access to these and many of the other documents that the council has produced since 1994.

NSTC and the presidential transition

NSTC was established by executive order in 1993, and it has operated continuously since then. The council’s ex officio membership will completely (or almost completely) turn over with the new Trump administration, but, unless it is disbanded, the council itself will continue to exist as currently structured. Interagency committees may continue to operate uninterrupted since most agency representatives are civil servants, but, as its chairman, President Trump will be free to revise the council’s committee structure and agenda as he sees fit.

NSTC committees are typically co-chaired and supported by staff from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Although OSTP is established by law, as part of the Executive Office of the President many (and perhaps all) of its present staff will be departing at the end of President Obama’s term. The incoming Trump administration will be responsible for recruiting a completely new staff.

NSTC is distinct from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which conducts studies and offers advice in support of White House policy. Unlike NSTC, PCAST is chaired by the science advisor to the president and comprises volunteer members drawn from outside the government. It must be reestablished by each new administration through an executive order. President Obama’s PCAST held its final meeting today.

About the author

headshot of Will Thomas
wthomas [at]
+1 301-209-3097