President Barack Obama in Tokyo

President Barack Obama visited a Tokyo science museum in 2014.

The White House

Report urges Trump, Clinton to make room for science in the White House

A new report on how the next U.S. president should manage the nation’s science portfolio comes with an invisible sticker on its cover: Open and read immediately if Donald Trump is elected.

The 20-page report, by former Clinton science adviser Neal Lane and colleagues at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is directed at the winner of the November election. Its explicit message is simple: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the position of the president’s science adviser should be retained. Left unspoken is the fear that Republican standard-bearer Trump, unlike Democrat Hillary Clinton, may decide to dismantle the present structure, which has existed for decades under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

“The status quo is not always a bad thing,” quipped Lane during a briefing today on the report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “There are many things about OSTP and the science adviser’s job that have been shown to work pretty well over the years. And there’s nothing that came up that would suggest there are problems” with how the Obama administration has used its science adviser, John Holdren, and his office.

So why did Lane, a physicist who led the National Science Foundation for 5 years before moving over to the White House in 1998, bother to write a report about a system that isn’t broken and needs only some fine-tuning? Lane says it’s important for the next president to be able, from day one, to have access to the best scientific and technical advice on everything from cybersecurity to global health. That means thinking about the right mechanism even before the votes are counted. “And when we say act early, we mean right now,” Lane stressed.

The report endorses practices that may seem arcane to outsiders but that are held sacred by science policy mavens. One is having the science adviser serve as an assistant to the president as well as OSTP director. The first title means the person can start on Inauguration Day; the second requires Senate confirmation, a process that can take months (or never be consummated).

That early start is essential for fulfilling another of the report’s recommendations, namely, that the new president lay out priorities for science and innovation within the first 100 days of taking office. The science adviser should manage such a project, the report says, working with other White House officials, Cabinet secretaries, science agency heads, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The exercise would both set goals and lay out “measurable objectives” on how to achieve them. As an example, the Rice University report suggests setting a target for federal investment in research as a percentage of the national economy, something no president has done.

Lane says the priority setting would also be a way to energize the National Science and Technology Council, an internal body of department heads that Obama never convened as a whole. It would also emphasize that science affects every government agency, even those that do not directly support research.

Admitting that he is diving into the weeds, Lane says that his biggest concern is the lack of institutional memory at OSTP, both within a single administration and during transitions. Only one-quarter of its 120-person staff are permanent or political appointees, he says. Half have been detailed from another federal agency, and one-sixth hold short-term fellowships paid by nongovernmental organizations. OSTP has deliberately boosted the size of its temporary staff to handle a growing workload, says Lane, who likes the results of those efforts. But he says there are also downsides to having so many transient employees, and he would like to see a better balance.

The report deliberately shies away from offering advice to the next president on specific issues. “It’s just too hard,” Lane says. At the same time, the authors describe several topics—climate change, science education, global health, food security, energy, and space exploration—sure to be on the next president’s plate, as a reminder that science permeates federal policymaking.