White House Plan to Overhaul Federal Government Includes Science Agency Reforms

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Publication date: 
22 June 2018

The White House has released a long-anticipated blueprint outlining over 80 recommendations for reforming, reorganizing, and streamlining the federal government. Among its proposals for science agencies, the plan calls for consolidating the Department of Energy’s applied R&D programs into a new “Office of Energy Innovation” and consolidating the administration of “small” federal graduate research fellowship programs into the National Science Foundation.


White House

(Image credit - The White House)

Yesterday, the White House released a long-anticipated blueprint outlining proposals to reform, reorganize, and streamline the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget produced the report in response to an executive order President Trump issued in March 2017.

The plan draws on workforce reform plans federal agencies were required to submit last fall. It outlines more than 80 recommendations that the administration argues will reduce redundancy and increase efficiency in government activities, including R&D and STEM education. The administration has already implemented some of the proposals, while others were included in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, date back to previous administrations, or are altogether new. Many of the larger changes will require congressional authorization to implement.

Department of Energy

The plan proposes consolidating the Department of Energy’s applied energy R&D programs — Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Nuclear Energy, and Fossil Energy — into a new “Office of Energy Innovation” focused on “sector and system-level outcomes.”  

The proposal criticizes the current DOE organizational structure as a “siloed” approach to R&D that leaves DOE’s research vulnerable to undue influence by stakeholder interests, leads to the “practice of picking energy technology winners and losers,” and prevents the development of “integrated solutions.” The new office would work toward crosscutting department goals, require R&D in all categories to compete for common resources, and focus on early-stage R&D “where the Federal role is strongest.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which currently operates independently of other DOE R&D offices, would also be brought under the new office’s umbrella. “While the [ARPA-E] program features positive aspects, such as coordination with industry and cross-cutting research, it makes little strategic sense that this entity exists independent of DOE’s main applied research programs,” the plan states.

The administration proposed terminating ARPA-E in its last two budget requests, but congressional support for eliminating the program has diminished even as House and Senate appropriators are calling for it to be robustly funded in fiscal year 2019. The White House’s new plan does not explicitly call for eliminating ARPA–E, but it does state that the agency’s “positive attributes” should be integrated into “DOE’s core energy research.”

The plan also notes the DOE Office of Science is “evaluating several proposals to merge and consolidate field and headquarters activities to improve efficiency and cost.” Potential options include merging “site offices” based on geography, reorganizing Integrated Service Centers, realigning safety and technical services, and streamlining the organization and “reducing staff and/or administration support costs."

National Science Foundation

The plan proposes to consolidate the administration of “smaller” graduate research fellowship programs from across the federal government into the National Science Foundation. Noting NSF awards the largest number of fellowships among all agencies, the proposal suggests that leveraging the agency’s existing administrative capacity to manage smaller fellowship programs “could be more efficient and produce savings if fellowship offices at other agencies can be downsized or eliminated.”

While the plan does not define what constitutes a “small” program, it states one of the first steps to implement the proposal is to inventory all existing federal graduate fellowship programs. Most other science agencies support and administer graduate research fellowships, such as the DOE Office of Science’s Computation Sciences Graduate Fellowship Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Knauss Marine Fellowship Programs.

The plan also highlights NSF’s proposal to invest $60 million in two “Convergence Accelerators” that would leverage cross-agency resources to support two of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas at the frontiers of science: “Harnessing the Data Revolution” and “Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier.” NSF included the convergence accelerator proposal as part of its fiscal year 2019 budget request, released in February.


The plan proposes that NASA establish an expedited process to determine whether one or more of its centers should be converted to or otherwise host a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC), a management model in which a private, academic, or non-profit contractor operates a government-owned facility. While NASA currently supports 10 centers across the U.S., only the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech, is an FFRDC; NASA directly manages the other nine.

The proposal calls on NASA to provide its analysis and recommendations to the White House by the end of August so it can incorporate them in future budget requests and policies. A similar proposal was recommended by a presidential commission during the George W. Bush administration. 

Environmental Protection Agency

The plan notes the Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a review of its laboratories to ensure they operate “in a more strategic, corporate, and efficient manner.” As part of the effort, EPA will identify and implement a new framework “to create a more agile environment and manage lab capabilities and capacity to meet the [agency’s] scientific demands.” The proposal was included in EPA’s reform plan that was released with its fiscal year 2019 budget request.

National Institutes of Health

The plan highlights ongoing efforts at the National Institutes of Health to restructure its administrative functions to “align management with best practices and break down administrative silos through standardization of structures and processes agency-wide.”

It further proposes the consolidation of three health research agencies and offices in the Department of Health and Human Services into NIH: the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health; and National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. The plan asserts the merger and creation of the three new NIH institutes will “improve research coordination and outcomes.” NIH included this proposal in its fiscal year 2019 budget request.

Department of Education

In what would amount to a major Cabinet-level reorganization, the administration proposes merging the Department of Education and Labor Department into a single “Department of Education and the Workforce” (DEW). While noting the two departments share a common goal of “preparing Americans for success in a globally competitive world,” the proposal states they currently operate in “silos,” hampering coordination and creating a “complicated web of funding streams for states and localities.” According to the administration, the new department “would help create alignment throughout the education-to-career pipeline, while also creating coherence within the workforce development and higher education worlds.”

DEW would encompass four new sub-agencies: K–12 Education; American Workforce and Higher Education Administration (AWHEA); Research, Evaluation, and Administration; and Enforcement. All existing primary and secondary education programs at DOEd would be relocated to K–12 Education, while all of DOEd higher education programs and many of DOL’s workforce development programs would be placed in AWHEA.

Department of Interior

The administration recommends merging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to consolidate the administration of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act into a single agency. The proposal notes that the idea of merging the two entities has been proposed by several previous administrations and congresses as a way to improve coordination of natural resources management.

State Department

Within the agency-specific recommendations, the plan notes the State Department is in the process of integrating several envoy and special representative offices into the department's regional and functional bureaus.  It proposes eliminating envoy and special representative positions “that have accomplished their original purpose, or have overlapping roles and responsibilities.” According to the plan, 17 offices are currently being realigned as part of this process. The department has hosted a U.S. Science Envoy Program since 2010. 

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