The new science adviser to President Donald Trump has studied the causes and effects of extreme weather for nearly 4 decades. But meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier says he’s not a climate scientist and doesn’t want people to think he’s an expert on the topic.
That humble demeanor comes naturally to the 60-year-old academic, colleagues say. It may serve him well as the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which helps coordinate and create science policy across the U.S. government. In filling a post that was vacant for 2 years, Droegemeier faces the stiff challenge of making a difference in an administration that many researchers say has repeatedly shown disdain for scientific evidence.
In his first public interview since coming on board last month, Droegemeier pushed back on that criticism. “I think this president strongly supports science,” he told ScienceInsider from his office a few strides across a driveway from the West Wing. “And there’s a huge amount of evidence for the tremendous scientific advances that have happened on his watch.” (OSTP is currently updating a March 2018 document listing accomplishments in Trump’s first year.)
Droegemeier was less emphatic when discussing climate change, which for many researchers is the most egregious example of the Trump administration’s attitude toward science. He repeatedly avoided saying whether he believes that rising carbon dioxide emissions are an existential threat to the planet that demands a strong response from the U.S. government, a mainstream scientific view that is anathema to his boss. Instead, he suggested more research on the topic is needed.
“The climate system is a very, very complicated thing,” he said in response to a question about assessing the relative impacts of climate change on the environment, the economy, and on public health. “If you think tornadoes and severe storms, which I study, are complicated, multiply that by factors to 10 to get the complexity of the climate system.” Droegemeier suggested “using all of our resources as effectively as possible to understand that complexity … and do projections that are most appropriate and reliable scientifically,” but did not call for a greater federal investment in climate research.
Now, you’ll be hearing a bit more about the science side.
A smaller federal presence?
The research community hailed Droegemeier’s nomination last summer, citing his strong academic credentials and his advocacy for increased federal investments in research as an administrator at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and as vice chair of the oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF). But the fact that Droegemeier now works in an administration that has twice requested double-digit budget cuts to basic research at several federal agencies—proposals a Republican-led Congress rejected—may have altered his perspective.
In 2013, for example, Droegemeier told a Senate panel that “the federal government has an essential role in supporting basic research” and that companies “rely on the new knowledge created by basic research to develop new products and services.” But Droegemeier now sees that relationship differently. The ever-growing federal debt and a strong economy, he says, means the federal government no longer needs to play such a dominant role in funding academic research at the nation’s universities.
“Yes, the federal government still has an important role, but the context is very different than it was 30 or 40 years ago,” he explained. “Trillion-dollar companies are investing huge amounts of research dollars in autonomous vehicles and other new technologies. Foundations are investing millions in areas of great importance. And then the major research universities are putting a lot of skin in the game as well.”
The need to curb federal spending has also altered the picture, he added. “OK, we’ve got a $22-trillion debt in this country. We all have to work together to figure out how to leverage those federal dollars in the maximum way possible.”
Droegemeier even hailed the findings of an NSF survey showing that the federal government now supports less than half of all basic research conducted in the United States. While most research advocates have decried that shrinking federal role, down from 70% in the 1960s and 1970s, Droegemeier applauded the trend.
“Yes, I think it is a healthy sign. I don’t see it as terrible at all,” he told ScienceInsider. “The fact that the government and the private sector are joining forces, just as Vannevar Bush described in Science, the Endless Frontier, is a wonderful thing.”
Drogemeier said he plans to expand on that theme on Friday in a keynote address at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) in Washington, D.C. “I think we need much greater connective tissue” among all of the players—government, industry, academia and philanthropy—that comprise the U.S. research establishment. “We need more efficiency, more interaction, more collaboration. No other country comes close to having what we have.”
A “conversation” on harassment
Droegemeier says “it’s a great privilege” to lead an agency charged with facilitating communication among the various executive branch agencies that fund research. He does not hold the additional title of assistant to the president—something given his predecessor under then-President Barack Obama, John Holdren, but not the last Republican science adviser, Jack Marburger, who served former President George W. Bush—but says that’s immaterial to his ability to perform his duties.
“The statute that created OSTP [in 1976] talks about the director providing science advice to the president and the executive branch,” Droegemeier notes. “And I report to the president.”
His 60-person staff keeps busy convening cross-agency committees and writing reports, some mandated by Congress, on what the federal government is doing on topics ranging from science and math education to quantum computing. But coordination isn’t the same thing as forging government-wide consensus on any particular issue. Indeed, Droegemeier says he doesn’t see the need for a uniform policy on dealing with two contentious issues now roiling the research community—sexual harassment and academic espionage.
“The circumstances vary greatly from one agency to the next,” Droegemeier said in response to a question about sexual harassment. “Some agencies fund a lot of work out in the field, some agencies support work in extreme environments, some agencies fund research in an ecological lab or a space station where people live together for months at a time. So, they have to think about applying different rules.”
“I'm very strong on having uniform principles,” he continued. “And then, you take those principles and you actualize them in a particular context at a particular agency.” The goal, he said, should be to “make sure that the environment is free from harassment. But figuring out the best way to implement those principles gets into the weeds.”
We’ve got a $22-trillion debt in this country. We all have to work together to figure out how to leverage those federal dollars in the maximum way possible.
Some researchers would like the federal government to add sexual harassment to its definition of scientific misconduct, which covers fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. The American Geophysical Union has done so for its members, but Droegemeier warned of “unintended consequences” of changing the federal definition.
“The thing is, research misconduct right now really addresses the research itself, not the research environment,” he explains. “And the environment in which research is conducted, how people are treated, is very different than if someone is fabricating a result on a research project. At the same time, I think we need to have a conversation because the right research environment is very important.”
Droegemeier would take a similar approach in safeguarding the fruits of government-funded research and preventing the theft of intellectual property. The issue has become a political hot potato, fueled by China’s explicit push to achieve parity with other industrial powers in a range of advanced technologies that have both civilian and military uses.
Federal agencies have reacted in different ways to pressure from Congress and the Trump administration. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has stressed the importance of disclosure of any foreign ties in hopes of rooting out what it calls “a conflict of commitment.” The Department of Energy (DOE) has gone much further, unveiling plans to prohibit DOE-funded scientists from participating in so-called foreign-talent recruitment programs run by “sensitive” countries, as well as barring grantees who are funded by those countries for work in certain fields from competing for future DOE grants.
Droegemeier endorsed DOE’s policy, calling it an “appropriate” response to the threat facing the nation. But he added that what DOE is doing “may not be right for other agencies, because each agency is different. … The thing that we all agree on is that we want to protect American assets.”
Sitting in an office bare of wall decorations except for official portraits of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Droegemeier invoked his boss’s controversial stance on immigration as a prescription for how to thwart scientific espionage
“I love what President Trump said in his State of the Union address,” he says. “The gist of it was, we welcome immigration, but we want people coming in legally. And when you think about science and you think about the scientific enterprise that means, let's recruit these folks, and let's keep international science strong. But let's do it in a legal way.”
A push for less paperwork
The furthest that Droegemeier strayed from official White House policy during the interview was in a discussion about easing the administrative burden on academic researchers and their universities. It’s a perennial issue that rarely generates headlines. But in 2016, higher education lobbyists thought they had won a victory when Congress created an advisory body, called the Research Policy Board, to report to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees federal regulatory efforts.
The board, comprised of both federal employees and outside experts, was supposed to be created by December 2017, and issue its first report a year later. But it has yet to be set up. Last summer, OMB said it could not create the board and gave two reasons why: One, Congress had not given NIH money to staff the board, as the president had requested; and, two, legislators had prohibited OMB from reworking the rules to reduce how much NIH spends on indirect cost recovery, an arcane formula by which institutions are repaid for money they spend on infrastructure and overhead related to federally funded research.
However, the governing legislation, the 21st Century Cures Act, lays out no such prerequisites for creating the board. And Droegemeier, who told Congress in 2017 that the federal government is actually shortchanging universities on indirect costs, told ScienceInsider that easing the regulatory burden on universities is a priority for him and that he thinks the administration can establish the new board without revising the NIH rules on indirect costs.
We welcome immigration, but we want people coming in legally. And when you think about science … let's keep international science strong. But let's do it in a legal way.
“I think there are a lot of changes in administrative burdens that are completely unrelated to indirect costs that would make sense, if you think about this as being a way to bring more money back to the table,” he says. “It's not even budget neutral; it's budget positive, because you're taking money that is now being wasted and you're putting it back into productive research.
“I’m going to be laser-focused on what we can do to reduce the administrative burden [on researchers],” he promises. “And one of the things I really love about this administration is not only that it is very keen on removing regulatory barriers and burdens, but it is also laser-focused on getting tangible results, not writing a lot of reports and not having lots of endless conversations, but on making policy decisions today that are going to have demonstrable outcomes and positive benefits to this country.”
“More about the science”
Droegemeier was confirmed by the Senate on 2 January, started work in January during the partial government shutdown, and was ceremonially sworn in this week by Pence. Marburger held the previous record for late arrivals, starting about 10 months after Bush took office. In contrast, Holdren was on the job the day after Obama was inaugurated.
Michael Kratsios has been the de facto head of OSTP, concurrent with his official role as deputy chief technology officer and deputy assistant to the president. The 32-year-old has an undergraduate degree in political science and was chief of staff to billionaire investor Peter Thiel before joining OSTP in March 2017. He’s been most visible on issues relating to expanding broadband communication, enabling drone technology, and fostering innovation.
Droegemeier called Kratsios “an extraordinary leader.” But he acknowledged that the “science” part of the office may have been getting short shrift during his tenure.
“He has been more on the technology side. So, you maybe heard a bit more about technology,” Droegemeier says. “Now, you’ll be hearing a bit more about the science side.”