Three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), mandated by Congress to lend scientific insight and technological guidance to senior administration officials, stands disempowered. OSTP’s director, who doubles as the president’s senior science advisor, has yet to be appointed. Its cadre of experts in science, engineering, and technology has dwindled substantially from a peak staff of around 140 during the Obama administration, and remaining staff have struggled to gain access to upper-level decision makers. Gauging from the deep cuts to federal science and technology (S&T) investments in the proposed FY2018 budget, science, engineering, and technology are not high on the administration’s agenda.
Given President Trump’s tenuous relationship with the tech sector and skepticism of scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, it may not come as much a surprise that OSTP is a low priority for this White House. The office has also faced recent criticism and doubt, particularly from those on the right – including some who were involved in the presidential transition. Nonetheless, the role that OSTP plays in advising on and coordinating functions pertaining to science and technology is vital to securing and advancing U.S. economic, public health, and national security interests. This administration would be remiss to ignore that fact.
The scope of the federal research and development (R&D) portfolio is wide and complex and encompasses several agencies with diverse interests and disparate projects. OSTP’s responsibility is to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the collective federal S&T effort by aligning and synthesizing the individual contributions of any one agency with the administration’s broader policy agenda. By coordinating policies, regulations, and cooperation across agencies, OSTP enables quick and robust federal S&T responses to crises and emerging developments: this was the case during the 2014 ebola outbreak, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In offering confidential and objective advice to the president on S&T and its implementation, OSTP supports the careful crafting of realistic, achievable, and impactful policies, budgets, and priorities. As a liaison between the administration and the non-federal S&T communities, the office can also foster stronger relationships and a deeper partnership with the tech industry, a sector of important consequence to the United States’ global competitiveness.
These are important responsibilities, which, if not fulfilled, would leave the administration hobbled in its ability to mobilize and exploit the wealth of scientific, engineering, and technological knowledge and capability present in both government and industry. Moreover, in the coming years, the Trump administration will need to contend with challenging policy questions and choices that carry significant scientific and technological implications and warrant the expert advice of OSTP.
These include decisions on renewable energy, additive manufacturing, advanced medicine, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics, among others. Trump’s infrastructure aspirations, which were a signature of his campaign, are sure to grapple with challenges related to next-generation transportation systems in the air and on land, such as “smart roads,” self-driving cars, and drones. Meanwhile, economic growth, increasingly driven by innovation, will rely on federal policies on intellectual property, technology transfer, and technology entrepreneurship – areas that fall under OSTP’s purview. Without experts in these fields, the Trump administration will struggle to advocate for its ideas, transform them into reality, and intersect a broad agenda with trends and developments in the technological realm.
The same is true for issues that extend into the foreign policy arena. The United States’ civil and academic partnerships and cooperation with other states in scientific and technological pursuits depend to a substantial degree on federal prioritization, coordination, and funding of R&D. Likewise, biological terrorism, nuclear and chemical proliferation and defense, evolving cyber capabilities, globalization, and, indeed, climate change, are just a few critical issues that transcend borders. S&T is just as important a part of the president’s foreign policy “toolbox” as the advice of his generals, diplomatic engagement, and military strength. Ignoring technological and scientific responses to emerging challenges and foreign developments would weaken the United States’ security and leverage on the world stage.
Kumar Garg, a former senior OSTP adviser, suggested that the president is “flying blind when it comes to science and tech issues.” Considering the many policy challenges facing American leadership, both domestic and international, in science and technology, as well as the accelerating pace of global innovation, the president cannot afford to “fly blind” without a fully developed OSTP. It is critically important that Trump move to appoint an OSTP director and organize a capable office that can take up the responsibility of engaging, supporting, and coordinating the nation’s R&D efforts. Trump’s agenda, not to mention the nation’s security and public well-being, is dependent on a strong Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Cody Knipfer is the Technology & Cybersecurity Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Cody is also an Associate at PoliSpace and expects to receive his MA in International Science and Technology Policy in 2018 from George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.