A new White House directive laying out next year’s spending priorities for federal research agencies describes a U.S. science enterprise imperiled by internal problems and foreign governments. It’s the first time this annual exercise has addressed the perceived threat to research posed by Chinese government entities.
The nine-page memo also incorporates several favorite themes from recently arrived presidential science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier, notably, that the continued health of U.S. research enterprise depends on preserving “American values” and that scientists must do a better job of modeling and predicting environmental variability.
Each summer, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issue a memo on the administration’s priorities in R&D. The memo is meant to influence what agency heads submit to OMB in September as their budget request for the next fiscal year, a process that ends when the president submits his budget to Congress the following February.
The bulk of this year’s R&D memo, released on 30 August, hews closely to the two previous memos issued by President Donald Trump’s administration. Four of its five budget priorities—ensuring a strong military, advancing cutting-edge technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, fostering medical breakthroughs, and promoting space exploration—were also featured in the 2018 memo. That’s also the case for most of the five topics labeled “priority crosscutting actions,” a catch-all category including the need for a technically savvy workforce and more partnerships between the government and industry.
Droegemeier became OSTP director in January. And the opening lines of the new memo from him and acting OMB Director Russell Vought strike a far more somber tone than previous memos, which typically focus on where the federal government should invest more resources. The current U.S. scientific ecosystem, the memo warns, “features new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively.” Continued U.S. leadership, the memo says, “will depend upon striking a balance between the openness of our research ecosystem and the protection of our ideas and research outcomes.”
Droegemeier has used similar language repeatedly in talks to scientific audiences, and its presence suggests he played a major role in shaping this year’s R&D memo. The clearest such example is the inclusion of a crosscutting priority labeled “Create and support research environments that reflect American values.”
That new listing flags a major bureaucratic initiative that Droegemeier launched this spring. He combined two existing committees within the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), an interagency body within the White House that coordinates federal science policy, into what he calls the Joint Committee on Research Environments.
The committee has been asked to tackle four issues facing the U.S. scientific community. Three are perennial problems—reducing the amount of time and effort needed to comply with federal rules governing research, combating scientific misconduct and promoting reproducibility, and eliminating sexual harassment and other impediments to a safer and more diverse research environment. But the fourth, which the memo labels “protecting American research assets,” is a direct reference to the recent crackdown by federal agencies to scientists with foreign ties, in particular, ethnic Chinese scientists in the United States with funding from the Chinese government.
Droegemeier has promised to make progress on all four issues, a hugely challenging goal given their complexity. And although it’s easy to build a consensus around the first three—who doesn't want to reduce red tape and increase diversity?—the government’s recent effort to protect research assets clashes with long-standing principles regarding international collaborations and the free exchange of ideas.
Several U.S. university presidents have spoken out against what they see as an unwarranted crackdown on foreign-born scientists. The most recent example of community pushback is a letter from 60 scientific societies released today. Addressed to Droegemeier and the heads of four leading research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, it asks for a seat at the table as the administration addresses the issue.
“Finding the appropriate balance between our nation’s security and an open, collaborative scientific environment requires focus and due diligence,” it says. “We ask that you consider a wide range of stakeholder perspectives as your agencies work together through the new NSTC Joint Committee on Research Environments to develop policies and procedures that address issues related to international researchers’ participation in the U.S. scientific enterprise. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you.”
Better Earth models
Droegemeier also seems to have played a role in how the R&D memo handles environmental issues. Previous memos haven’t even mentioned the topic. But one of this year’s budget priorities, on energy and the environment, goes far beyond previous memos that focused on fostering energy independence. In particular, the memo contains a detailed discussion of the predictability of Earth systems—a familiar subject for Droegemeier, a meteorology professor who spent 3 decades at the University of Oklahoma in Norman studying violent storms.
“Knowing the extent to which components of the Earth system are practicably predictable—from individual thunderstorms to long-term global change—is vitally important for physical understanding of the Earth system, assessing the value of prediction results, guiding federal investments, [and] developing effective policy,” the memo explains.
At the same time, the memo does not call for additional resources. Instead, it suggests agencies may need to shift money from existing programs to beef up efforts on prediction.
“Departments and agencies should prioritize R&D that helps quantify Earth system predictability across multiple phenomena, time, and space scales,” it says. “Additionally, agencies should emphasize how measures of, and limits to, predictability can inform a wide array of stakeholders.” Some environmentalists may see the mention of limits as a sop to those who reject the scientific evidence that humans are altering Earth’s climate; they often argue that current models are too flawed to use as a basis for policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s never clear whether any R&D memo actually shapes a president’s forthcoming budget request to Congress. That’s never been truer than with Trump sitting in the Oval Office. And with Vought as acting OMB director, the budget agency’s influence within the White House is even more suspect.
Still, the memo reflects the most comprehensive statement to date from Droegemeier on the administration’s research priorities. He has ducked questions about Trump’s massive proposed cuts to research in previous budgets by saying that he wasn’t around when those budgets were crafted. But Droegemeier will be expected to defend his boss’s 2021 request after it arrives on Capitol Hill next winter. And the R&D memo is the first step in that process.