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Kelvin Droegemeier in his office next to the White House

Stephen Voss

Analysis: U.S. science adviser has a vision for cutting research red tape, but details are scarce

U.S. academic scientists and university officials have long complained about how much time they must spend complying with the many rules relating to the federal dollars they receive. But since President Donald Trump assumed office, most scientists have refocused their angst on the president’s proposed large spending cuts to basic research and his administration’s seeming indifference to combatting climate change. What is known as the administrative burden issue has largely fallen off their radar, in large part because they fear that any changes by the Trump administration might make matters worse rather than better.

Kelvin Droegemeier wants to turn back the clock. As director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the president’s science adviser, Droegemeier generally avoids the subject of federal budgets and climate change when talking to researchers. Science lobbyists say his silence is understandable, given the slim chance that his advice would alter the administration’s stance on those issues.

Instead, Droegemeier prefers to discuss how he wants to “unleash scientists” and remove obstacles to their greater productivity—especially bureaucratic red tape. “This thing has been studied to death. Now it’s time to take action,” he said yesterday during a meeting with a panel of space scientists and aerospace engineers convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. “I am absolutely intent on moving the needle. In fact, I’m almost angry.”

That’s strong language from the normally mild-mannered Droegemeier. But it’s become part of his stump speech since becoming OSTP director in January. And he’s likely to repeat that message tomorrow at the annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C., put on by AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider).

Finding an open lane

Railing against the administrative burden on the U.S. research community resonates with his audiences. A federal survey has consistently found that scientists say they spend more than 40% of the time they allocate to a federal grant on activities other than actual research—a list that includes mentoring students and writing papers. Although Droemegeier acknowledges that some of those activities are necessary and even important, he says others “are not valuable and serve no useful purpose. I can’t think of anything more wasteful” of the time and energy of brilliant, highly trained scientists, he adds.

But his forceful language turns mushy when Droegemeier is asked how he would eliminate wasteful practices. In 2016, Congress passed a law that told the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to set up an advisory board, called the Research Policy Board, to tackle the issue. But Trump budget officials have balked at setting up the board, saying lawmakers first need to change how the National Institutes of Health reimburses universities for the money they spend on infrastructure and overhead related to federal grants. OMB says those changes would free up money for more spending on biomedical research. But Congress has prohibited the administration from reducing those payments, so efforts to establish the policy board are at an impasse.

Speaking yesterday to ScienceInsider, Droegemeier said there’s another, faster way to address administrative burdens without creating the board. “There’s nothing that prohibits us from moving forward via the National Science and Technology Council [NSTC],” he says, referring to an existing White House body OSTP manages that has representatives from two dozen federal agencies. Using NSTC may even be preferable, he says, “given the slow pace of change” and the fact that U.S. voters will go to the polls again in November 2020.

Alpha institutes

Droegemeier’s desire to “unleash the human mind” goes beyond simply reducing federal paperwork. He has repeatedly told scientific audiences that he would also like to see new forms of research collaborations among government agencies, universities, and corporations that wouldn’t be bound by existing rules.

One approach, which he has labeled alpha institutes, “would bring together smart people and turn them loose,” he told the academies panel. “You don’t want them to violate any laws. But you’re basically saying to them, ‘We’ll unencumber you as much as possible. Instead of a report every quarter, you’ll make a two-page PowerPoint presentation once a year.’”

Droegemeier has been toying with the idea for a decade and admits that it still lacks important details, such as which federal rules might have to be waived or altered to allow them to exist. And there are other questions. “Who would choose the problem, and who would choose the people? Yeah, that’s all to be determined,” he says, along with how the institutes would be funded. “Some of them may fail. But that’s fine,” he adds. “The point is to send the message that our research enterprise is burdened with unnecessary regulations and that it’s time to fix this problem.”

A second promising approach, Droegemeier says, would be to expand the existing number of academic-industry partnerships, including having academic scientists remain as faculty members while also working for a company. “It’s not a completely foreign idea,” he says. “But we just don’t do it very often because of all the potential conflicts.”

Droegemeier thinks the scientific community has the power to remove that obstacle by thinking more boldly. “We end up not doing something not because it doesn’t make sense, but because it’s difficult,” he says. “We need to take intellectual risks, and we don’t do that as often as we used to.”

The odds that any of these reforms will come to pass under Droegemeier’s watch aren’t good, he admits. But he plans to give it a try for however long he remains in the White House.

“We have 20 months [before Trump’s term ends], what can we accomplish?” he says. “I didn’t come to Washington just to keep the lights on.”