Appropriators Query OSTP Head on Pressing Science Policy Concerns

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In his first appearance before the House, Kelvin Droegemeier fielded questions about the Trump administration’s treatment of science, particularly on climate-related matters, and outlined initiatives to improve the integrity and quality of “research environments.”

Kelvin Droegemeier testifying before the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee on July 24.  (Image credit – House Appropriations Committee)

Kelvin Droegemeier testifying before the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee on July 24.

(Image credit – House Appropriations Committee)

Almost seven months into his work as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier testified before House appropriators last week, marking his first appearance before a congressional committee since his nomination hearing last year. Democrats on the committee pressed Droegemeier on subjects such as OSTP’s role within the White House and on the Trump administration’s treatment of scientists, especially concerning climate-related matters.

For his part, Droegemeier hewed closely to themes he has spoken about in other public appearances, emphasizing the importance of “American values” and the administration’s focus on “industries of the future” such as quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, and 5G telecommunications. He also highlighted the work of the Joint Committee on Research Environments, a newly formed interagency body charged with handling such matters as scientific integrity, sexual harassment, administrative burden, and research security.

Top appropriator presses Droegmeier on climate

Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for OSTP, asserted in his opening remarks that the Trump administration has exhibited a pattern of sidelining or deliberately suppressing science.

“Since January 2017, there has been a consistent effort to undermine the federal agencies that make the U.S. the world leader in science and technology,” he said. “In addition, there seem to have been clear attempts to bury the unbiased research and conclusions of the scientists who work for the federal government.”

Serrano argued that climate change research is particularly in the crosshairs, pointing to the administration’s release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment during the Thanksgiving holiday and its more recent suppression of a State Department analyst's written testimony on the national security implications of climate change.

Asked by Serrano for his “opinion as a scientist” on whether the Earth’s climate is changing due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, Droegemeier replied there is a “very strong connection” between emissions and rising global temperatures and that increases over the past century are “predominantly” due to humans. He said more must be done to provide policymakers with actionable information about climate change impacts over the next 100 years. “What we don't understand is how those effects at the global scale translate down to local and regional effects, which themselves can, in turn, affect the larger scales,” he said.

Pressed by Serrano about moves within the White House to set up a panel to review federal climate assessments, and if OSTP “takes direction” from it, Droegemeier said the committee does not exist, in line with reports the effort has been suspended.

“So you’re the only one in town?,” Serrano continued, to which Droegemeier replied,

Well, a lot of folks advise the president, rightly so, on matters of science policy. I’m not the only one. There are a lot of great folks, depending on what the particular topic is, but no such committee has been established at this point.

Pivoting to the White House’s role in vetting federal agency officials’ congressional testimony, Serrano asked if any “formal or informal guidance” is in place for “editing” references to climate change. Droegemeier did not say whether such instructions exist, instead explaining the White House’s clearance process varies depending on the nature of the testimony and that OSTP does not weigh in on every document. “If it’s something within an agency, typically we wouldn’t see that. It’s only, for example, if it’s coming out of the White House,” he said.

‘Research environments’ panel tackling high-priority problems

Droegemeier speaking at a meeting of the National Science and Technology Council's Joint Committee on Research Environments on July 9.  (Image credit – OSTP)

Droegemeier speaking at a meeting of the National Science and Technology Council's Joint Committee on Research Environments on July 9.

(Image credit – OSTP)

In his opening remarks and throughout the hearing, Droegemeier highlighted the role of JCORE as a focal point for work on a variety of pressing policy problems. He explained the committee has four subcommittees dedicated respectively to safe and inclusive research environments, rigor and integrity of research, administrative burdens, and research security.

The research security subcommittee, for instance, is focused on coordinating science agencies’ responses to mounting concerns about undue interference by foreign governments with federally funded research. The issue encompasses matters ranging from the theft of intellectual property to the failure of U.S.-based researchers to disclose funding from foreign sources.

Asked by Serrano whether OSTP plans to “develop consistent policy as to what constitutes foreign influence,” Droegemeier said the subcommittee will tackle that topic among others as it seeks to balance security precautions with the benefits of international collaboration.

“We don't want to stigmatize individuals who are coming from other countries,” Droegemeier said. “Our doors are open with the important caveat that you come here legally, you come here through the front door, and also … you act with integrity and uphold the values which are fundamental to the research process itself.”

Pressed by Serrano on whether the government has plans to require universities to monitor their staff for “inappropriate foreign ties,” Droegemeier replied that the administration’s “work is still ongoing,” adding that “some universities are already taking measures to do that.” Noting that universities are “free to do whatever they want to do,” he said one focus of the security subcommittee is developing “best practices” in consultation with the FBI, national security agencies, and stakeholders in academia. He also said it is working with the administrative burden subcommittee to “make sure that we don't create additional burdens and additional processes that aren't going to be effective.”

Inquiring about broader efforts to reduce administrative burdens on researchers, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) asked whether OSTP has plans for standardizing grant processes across federal science agencies. Droegemeier replied, “I think at the top level we've got to have this standardization.” Pointing to the inefficiency of having to conform to different agencies’ requirements, he remarked, “I can’t think of anything worse than a researcher who spent a lot of time and money becoming an expert, and then not using that intellectual talent to do science.” Asked about the timeline for instituting reforms, he replied the aim is to move “fast.”

Returning to the topic of research integrity, Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) asked Droegemeier if he was concerned about the findings of a recent Government Accountability Office report that documented uneven implementation of scientific integrity policies across agencies. Droegemeier replied that the JCORE subcommittee on research integrity might take on the issue once agencies have had time to respond to the report.

US leadership in emerging technologies probed

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), focused on OSTP’s role in emerging technologies. Asked whether the U.S. has fallen behind China and other nations in areas such as artificial intelligence research, Droegemeier replied, “I think we are really the world leader in AI. I think that’s also true in quantum.” Droegemeier suggested that reports of very large-scale investments in science and technology by nations such as China may not be strictly comparable to U.S. investment in its programs.

“I think, sometimes, when you hear other countries, namely China, investing and they say, ‘we spend $10 billion,’ or whatever, that might be over a ten-year period of time. But there's no mention of that, perhaps,” he observed. “I'm not saying they're being completely disingenuous, but I'm just saying that one of the things we're trying to do is to really understand what the investments of other countries are vis-à-vis what we're doing."

Aderholt also asked whether the administration has reached a compromise on how to open up a 24 GHz spectrum band to 5G telecommunications providers while addressing concerns about potentially severe degradation of weather forecasts. Droegemeier said an agreement has not been reached, but stressed he is confident one will be found. “We have a long history in America of folks that have compelling needs in spectrum living next door to each other and being good neighbors,” he said.

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