White House Releases R&D Priorities for Its Next Budget Request

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Following precedent, the White House has released its memo to federal agencies signaling its R&D priorities for the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request. Among its directions, the memo calls for fiscal restraint and reinforces the administration’s commitment to rolling back support for later-stage R&D and technology commercialization.

The White House

(Image credit - The White House)

Yesterday, the White House released its memorandum to the heads of federal agencies describing the Trump administration’s priorities for R&D, providing guidance as agencies prepare their submissions for the president’s next budget request. The document was jointly produced by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and it follows the precedent of previous administrations, which annually released their own such memos at about this time of year.

Collecting and elaborating on policy positions already staked out, the memo is also the administration’s first full synopsis of its science policy. The differences between the memo and previous ones offers a window into how the administration is tailoring its policies on R&D to suit its larger agenda for the nation.

R&D priorities defined around ‘American’ interests

In identifying priority areas for investment, the memo outlines five themes reflecting President Trump’s emphasis on protecting U.S. national interests. These are: American military superiority, American security, American prosperity, American energy dominance, and American health.

To support the “military of the future,” the memo recommends investment in “technologies related to the development of missile defense capabilities, a modern strategic deterrent, hypersonic weapons and defenses, autonomous and space-based systems, trusted microelectronics, and future computing capabilities.” It also encourages programs with “dual-use potential,” in recognition that military R&D has often resulted in “tremendously useful civil applications.”

Consistent with Trump’s focus on border security, the memo prioritizes investment in “technologies that can support border surveillance and law enforcement capabilities that can detect and interdict illegal activity including the smuggling of contraband and radioactive material.” It also supports “R&D to increase the security and resilience of the Nation's critical infrastructure from both physical threats and cyber-attacks.”

As areas important to economic prosperity, the memo identifies “emerging technologies such as autonomous systems, biometrics, energy storage, gene editing, machine learning, and quantum computing.” For energy, it stresses that “domestic energy sources should be the basis for a clean energy portfolio composed of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources.”

The memo says that medical R&D should be “focused on solutions for an aging population, as well as on combating drug addiction and other public health crises.” It also says that in addition to “foundational biological research, agencies should support investments that develop tools and technologies with the potential to open new areas of discovery.”

Breaking with both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the new memo makes no mention of climate change or the environment. More surprisingly, it also makes no mention of space-based science, despite the attention Trump has given to space exploration.

Memo emphasizes budget constraints, early-stage investment

The opening section of the memo indicates that agencies should balance existing and new R&D programs in ways that are “budget neutral.” Later, in a section in bold typeface, it elaborates:

When considering new research programs, agencies should ensure that the proposed programs are based on sound science, do not duplicate existing R&D efforts, and have the potential to contribute to the public good. Agencies should also identify existing R&D programs that could progress more efficiently through private sector R&D, and consider their modification or elimination where Federal involvement is no longer needed or appropriate.

Elsewhere, consistent with the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, the memo repeatedly emphasizes the importance of focusing on basic science and rolling back later-stage R&D and commercialization efforts.

The memo does not mention any of the focused interagency R&D initiatives established by previous administrations. Neither, though, did the Obama administration’s first memo, although special initiatives and aspirational “grand challenges” ultimately became a hallmark of its R&D policy. The new memo does note, “Where appropriate, agencies should maximize the coordination, promotion, and planning of their R&D programs through the National Science and Technology Council.”

The “sound science” terminology is common in discussions of evidence-based policymaking. However, it has also become controversial as some congressional Republicans have used it to question the credibility of predictive climate science and the social sciences and to propose new evidentiary standards for justifying regulations that critics consider unduly restrictive.

White House priorities inform directions on facilities, workforce

The memo follows previous years’ versions in dedicating sections to R&D infrastructure and the scientific and technical workforce, but it has introduced some new points of emphasis.

While the memo expresses its support for “maintaining and modernizing research infrastructure,” it also stresses that agencies must economize, saying,

Innovative partnership models involving other agencies, state and local governments, the private sector, academia, and international partners can help maximize utilization of underused facilities and lead to sharing the costs of new R&D facilities. … Where feasible, agencies must take steps to reduce waste by disposing of facilities that are no longer needed.

The workforce section reflects the growing interest in cultivating a broader spectrum of the nation’s skilled technical workforce. It explains,

In order to maintain American competitiveness and help ensure that the domestic workforce is available and qualified for the jobs of the future, agencies should incorporate STEM education, including computer science education, and workforce training opportunities into their programs. Agencies should give priority to policies and actions that place an emphasis on expanding the STEM workforce to include all Americans, both urban and rural, and including women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

The memo does not mention advanced manufacturing, which the Obama administration promoted as a means of job creation. The Trump administration’s budget request targeted these programs for cuts.

Trump-appointed OSTP official a co-author

In the past, the OSTP director has taken a leading role in preparing the annual R&D priorities memo and signed it alongside the White House budget director. However, Trump has not yet appointed anyone to the position. Instead, the memo was signed by Michael Kratsios, the administration’s deputy chief technology officer. Formerly chief of staff at Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s investment firm, Kratsios joined OSTP earlier this year. Identified on the memo as “deputy assistant to the president,” his signature affirms reports that he is currently the administration’s point person on science and technology policy.

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