Is Kelvin Droegemeier in sync with the science policies of President Donald Trump? That’s what members of the Senate commerce committee will want to know when Droegemeier appears before them on Thursday to discuss his nomination to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
U.S. science leaders have applauded the choice of the 59-year-old vice president for research and emeritus professor of meteorology at The University of Oklahoma in Norman. A life-long Republican, he upheld the community’s core values during a 12-year term as a member of the National Science Board, the presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has funded much of his work on severe storms. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that Droegemeier will experience much turbulence during the hearing over any past statements he’s made—although his 2014 comments on climate change could raise some eyebrows.
At the same time, the OSTP director traditionally has also served as the president’s science adviser. (An OSTP spokesperson says Droegemeier, if confirmed, would “report to the president” but that no decision has been made on whether he will officially hold both jobs.) And given OSTP’s responsibility to coordinate federal science policy across the executive branch, senators from both parties may use the confirmation hearing to explore what Droegemeier thinks about several controversial positions the Trump administration has taken that either rely on scientific evidence or affect the health of the research community.
Here are 10 topics that could put Droegemeier on the hot seat:
Deep proposed cuts to basic research: In his 2018 and 2019 budget requests, Trump sought to slash spending for NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies that fund academic research. Congress rebuffed him last year, and Trump revised his initial 2019 planned cuts after Congress belatedly struck a 2-year deal to increase both domestic and military spending. The White House has already issued guidance to agency officials on their 2020 budget requests, due in next month, and Droegemeier could be on board to vet those requests if the Senate moves quickly on his confirmation.
Walking away from the Paris climate accord and climate regulations: The president’s decision in June 2017 to withdraw from the Paris agreement was actually a notification to the other parties that the United States plans to leave in 2020. In reality, it gives supporters of the treaty 2-plus years to make progress on state and local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and national policymakers plenty of opportunities to seek ways to avoid going backward. But that could be difficult given that the Trump administration has already begun to propose looser rules that would replace former President Barack Obama’s plans to reduce emissions from power plants and vehicles. Critics say those plans are based on fuzzy math and flawed scientific assumptions. It’s hard to imagine Droegemeier changing his boss’s mind on those issues, but senators might probe his views on maintaining the country’s $2-billion-a-year investment in climate research.
Implementing rules banning “secret science”: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed several controversial rules (more here and here) that would bar or discourage regulators from considering studies that have not made public their underlying data or fully detailed their methods. The agency says the goal is to make the science underpinning regulations more transparent to those outside the agency. But critics say the proposals are designed to exclude certain kinds of studies—including large-scale public health studies based on confidential patient information—that have played a major role in justifying tighter controls on air pollution and toxic chemicals. Senators might want to know whether OSTP was consulted in the drafting of these proposals, or plans to weigh in on their adoption.
No EPA-funded scientists on advisory panels: Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt changed the rules on who can serve on the agency’s scientific advisory bodies, in particular excluding scientists who have received an EPA grant. Pruitt argued the move was simply meant to avoid conflicts of interest. But critics say it was designed to reduce the number of academic scientists serving on the panels, and tilt membership to favor of industry-affiliated researchers and consultants.
Defunding the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E): ARPA-E is supposed to help the Department of Energy fund innovative, high-risk approaches to reducing carbon emissions that are not yet ready to be commercialized. Congress has rejected Trump’s attempts to shut down the 10-year-old agency, which enjoys bipartisan support. Will the White House change its tune once a science adviser comes on board?
Asking a citizenship question on the U.S. census: It’s now clear that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was carrying out the political wishes of the White House when he ordered the Census Bureau to add this controversial question to the 2020 census. Several states and civil rights groups have gone to court, saying the question will undermine the accuracy of the census and distort both the allocation of federal dollars and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The researchers who rely on census data also have a lot at stake, but how compelling is that argument?
Restricting entry of foreign students: The U.S. scientific community has repeatedly voiced its support for open borders and the free exchange of people and ideas. But it’s a bit player in the bitter debate over immigration. OSTP could provide a forum to discuss the implications for research on any changes in U.S. immigration policy.
Reducing overhead payments on federal grants: White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney and some Republican legislators have campaigned for big cuts in how much the government pays universities to provide the necessary infrastructure to carry out research and meet federal requirements. Universities say they are already being shortchanged, but Mulvaney worries that the government is being ripped off. Droegemeier defended the current rules last year during a hearing by a key House spending panel that backs the status quo. Will he say the same thing in face-to-face conversations with those in the White House who criticize the practice? Senators will also want to know the status of an interagency working group charged with easing the administrative burden on academic researchers.
Science and math education: The Trump White House has bent the conversation away from attracting more high-quality teachers into the field, improving teaching practices, reforming graduate education, and strengthening science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula at all levels, opting to focus on apprenticeships and partnerships with companies seeking STEM-trained workers. A new 5-year strategic plan coming out this fall will reinforce that message, leaving some educators to wonder how much this administration cares about these other pillars of STEM education. The committee is also likely to ask about a new outside body to advise the government’s $3 billion investment in STEM education, because its members wrote it into a 2016 bill reauthorizing programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Combatting sexual harassment: Legislators have begun to question whether research agencies are doing enough to root out harassment by scientists who receive federal funding. A recent query to NIH suggests it is lagging behind NSF, which is poised to implement new guidelines for grantees. Will OSTP be asked—or want—to take the lead on developing a government-wide policy?