Senate Confirms OSTP Director, Several Other Science Nominations Expire

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Just before the end of the 115th Congress, the Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Nominees to lead the DOE Office of Science, DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, ARPA-E, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were not considered.

(Image credit - C-SPAN)

(Image credit - C-SPAN)

On Jan. 2, the Senate confirmed University of Oklahoma meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The move came shortly before the conclusion of the 115th Congress as part of a large series of last-minute confirmations by voice vote.

Aside from Droegemeier, the Senate confirmed one other nominee for a science-related position: Daniel Simmons as head of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Pending nominations that were not confirmed will now be automatically returned to the White House and will have to be resubmitted in order to receive further consideration.

OSTP director appointment ends historic vacancy

OSTP had been without a director for 712 days, the longest vacancy by far since the office’s creation in 1976. President Trump announced Droegemeier’s nomination on Aug. 1, 2018, and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee quickly approved it. Yet, although there was no open opposition to the nomination in Congress, it remained pending for months.

The OSTP director typically plays a leading role in shaping the federal government’s science and technology policy priorities, spearheading special policy initiatives, and coordinating research budgets across agencies and with the White House Office of Management and Budget. In addition, the director works to integrate science and engineering expertise into White House-level policymaking.

In the past, the OSTP director has often doubled as the president’s science advisor. It is not yet clear whether or not Droegemeier will take on that role. However, OSTP has indicated it hopes to revive the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the wake of Droegemeier’s confirmation. PCAST historically has been a body of prestigious experts from outside the government that produces reports and advises on issues of national significance. Established by executive order by every president since George H. W. Bush, it has always reported directly to the president.

The selection of Droegemeier to lead OSTP has drawn widespread praise from leading figures within the scientific community. His career has focused on modeling and predicting severe storms, and he has led several research initiatives at the University of Oklahoma, including establishing its Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, and Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere. He was the university’s vice president for research from 2009 until late 2018.

Droegemeier has also contributed extensively to science policy on the state and national level. In 2004, President George W. Bush nominated him to serve on NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board, and President Obama renewed his membership for a second term in 2011. He served as the board’s vice chair from 2012 to 2016. He was also a member of the Oklahoma Science and Technology Council from 2011 until recently and was named to the governor’s cabinet as secretary of science and technology in 2017.

At his confirmation hearing, Droegemeier identified three areas he planned to focus on as OSTP director: coordinating the federal R&D portfolio, building a diverse STEM workforce, and supporting new models for public-private partnerships that can translate research into the marketplace. He also expressed interest in developing a cross-government approach to addressing sexual harassment in the sciences.

Asked about the role of science in guiding policy, he said science must be “conducted free of political interference,” and he committed to ensure that “scientific results, unbiased, are presented to the president and others for effective decision-making.”

By statute, the president can nominate up to four associate directors of OSTP who are also subject to Senate confirmation. To date, President Trump has made no such nominations.

Few science agency nominations advance

The Department of Energy has been awaiting the confirmation of a number of nominees for senior science leadership positions. However, only Simmons’ nomination was approved as part of the Senate’s last-minute package of votes. Simmons had been serving as DOE’s principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy and was the office’s de facto head for a period before his nomination. Before joining DOE, he was vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a free-market oriented energy policy think tank.

Other DOE nominations that were not confirmed include Christopher Fall to be director of the Office of Science, Lane Genatowski to be director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, and Rita Baranwal to lead the Office of Nuclear Energy. All three were advanced by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with little or no opposition, and it is unclear why they were not included in the final package of nominees approved this week.

The Senate also did not confirm AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers as the leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trump nominated Myers for the position in October 2017, but many Senate Democrats have opposed him largely due to concerns about conflicts of interest between Myers’ and his family’s private interests in weather forecasting and NOAA’s mission in that area.

In the 116th Congress, Senate Republicans will have two extra votes to advance Myers’ nomination. In addition, a leading opponent of Myers’ nomination, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), is no longer in Congress. It is not yet confirmed that the Trump administration will resubmit Myers’ nomination. However, AccuWeather announced today that, effective Jan. 1, Myers has officially resigned from the company and sold all of his interests in it.

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