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Q&A: Kelvin Droegemeier, President Trump’s science adviser

30 May 2019

After nearly half a year on the job, the meteorologist defends the administration’s strategies on climate change and lunar exploration and explains why the country needs a detailed assessment of its R&D enterprise.

Since taking office in January, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director Kelvin Droegemeier has been talking up his proposal to take inventory of the US science and engineering enterprise—public, private, and philanthropic. He’s also been speaking about the need to reduce federally imposed administrative burdens on scientists, a perennial complaint of university administrators and researchers.

Kelvin Droegemeier.
Credit: The White House

A meteorologist known for his research on severe weather events, Droegemeier was vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma before being tapped by President Trump to head the OSTP, a post that carries with it the title of science adviser to the president.

Droegemeier spoke to Physics Today on 16 May, soon after the Trump administration announced an aggressive push toward returning astronauts to the Moon.

PT: The administration recently moved up by four years, to 2024, its target date for a lunar landing, and it added $1.6 billion to NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request to accelerate the program. Why do we need to go back to the Moon?

DROEGEMEIER: I’m on the National Space Council, and the strategy is that the Moon is the gateway to Mars. We obviously haven’t been to another body in a long, long time, and the sense is that we can do a lot of very important science. In particular, we can land near the poles—where we believe there is frozen water and where we can test out concepts, endurance in space, and how one establishes a sustainable presence, which is the president’s goal. If you want that giant leap to Mars, you take it in multiple steps.

PT: Nearly everyone, yourself included, acknowledges that climate change is occurring. Shouldn’t the administration be taking actions to limit the impacts now?

DROEGEMEIER: The administration is focused on a really strong economy. The key is looking at technological solutions. One of the revolutions has been fracking, which has really changed the energy mix in this country and allowed us to become energy independent. Traditionally, a growing economy meant that emissions were going up. But our economy is growing, and emissions aren’t growing year after year. US emissions are the lowest they’ve been since 1992 or so. What can we do in terms of technology to lead us in the right direction while not upending the economy in the process? The National Academies came out with four solutions that could be applied at scale now, like afforestation, natural kinds of activities. [The 2018 report also warned that those solutions “cannot yet provide enough negative emissions at reasonable cost, without substantial unintended harm,” such as reducing food supplies and threatening biodiversity.] As you say, the climate is changing, and we’re mindful of that, and you see evidence of that in a variety of ways.

PT: Your office has begun a holistic review of the US R&D enterprise. Why do you think that’s needed?

DROEGEMEIER: I use the term assessment. There are quadrennial defense reviews, quadrennial energy reviews. This R&D assessment would be maybe every 7 to 10 years. It’s something we’ve never done as a country: call time-out and take stock of all of what we have in the totality of industry, academia, and nonprofits, and include STEM education and workforce and our competitive position internationally. The data exist, especially in Science and Engineering Indicators. But we’ve never made a holistic assessment of us as a nation.

Part of the reason for doing an assessment is to take a look backward and ask, “Where did we think we would be in certain areas today? Where did we go wrong? What decisions did we make that maybe were not the right ones?”

The assessment will be a prelude to looking 20 years down the road. It’s important that we look beyond even a decadal survey to establish the nation’s priorities in science and technology. Other countries, particularly China, do this. The Chinese think really long term and do this in a variety of ways. No one has a crystal ball for the real long haul, but if we did a 20-year time horizon with the starting point being this assessment, we have a context for planning budgets and a lot of other things that right now we think of only in terms of the next budget cycle. China has played the long game and is doing things that are concerning to us.

PT: China’s government can tell everyone what to do. We can’t do that here.

DROEGEMEIER: That’s true. We have something far more powerful than an autocratic system, and that is our freedom. The American values that are baked into the notion of research are freedom of creativity and discovery. That’s a very powerful capability we have, and I would take it any day over the system China has.

PT: But you brought up China as a model.

DROEGEMEIER: I did bring it up, yes. And we have some concerns with China. On the other hand, international collaboration is exceptionally important. We’ve benefited tremendously from the international aspects of science. We continue to do that. We want to balance protection of our assets, intellectual property, ideas, and all of our discoveries with the openness that has made us a great nation and is fundamentally baked into the concept of research. We’ve got to find out what that balance point is. We’re in a different world today than 30 to 40 years ago. We want international cooperation with those who share our values. That’s very important to us.

PT: Open access is a big issue in the science community. You’ve said the government will never tell scientists where to publish. But you’ve also said the OSTP is reviewing existing policy, which requires journal publishers to make the results of federally funded research freely available no later than one year after publication. What changes could you make to the policy?

DROEGEMEIER: There aren’t too many things that you could do. The key thing is to get it right to make sure the research enterprise is robust, and that we have access to information. The National Academies just produced a report about making sure we have enough information out there to ensure that our science is reproducible to the extent that it can be. In some cases, you can’t do that because of the limitations on data with personally identifiable information. Overall we want to make sure open access is consistent with the whole purpose of the research enterprise, but also we have to be sure that open access doesn’t expose us unnecessarily to allow others to easily take advantage of our great work without having to do the work themselves. We want to take steps to protect against things like thefts of intellectual property, ideas, publications, and proposals, and the sharing of confidential research grant proposals that are in review with other countries that act on those good ideas. We want to make sure we’re protecting the great value of our research, the ideas of our scholars.

PT: How does all of that relate to open-access publishing?

DROEGEMEIER: Think about what open access means: I’m giving open access to something I’m producing. If we’re saying we have to be vigilant and protect our assets—and by the way, everything is open—inherently there’s a conflict there. But there doesn’t have to be conflict. We’re having conversations and making plans about this—how we balance this important openness of our enterprise, including open access, which is vital to the conduct of research, with the vigilance that’s needed to make sure that our hard work is not taken. We do all the hard work, and bad actors reap the benefits. We don’t want that.

PT: Organizationally, how many associate directors will OSTP have, and what responsibilities will they be given?

DROEGEMEIER: By statute there can be up to four Senate-confirmed associate directors. Michael Kratsios has been nominated by the president to be associate director for technology. We have principal assistant directors for science and for national security who are not in line for Senate confirmation at this point. So we have three divisions. When I was coming into the job, I looked at whether we need a fourth division. I don’t see a compelling need. Frankly so many things cut across boundaries and disciplines that the three we have span what we need to have. Things like STEM education, broadening participation, and diversity enhancement transcend boundaries.

PT: There’s been a lot of concern that frequencies being allocated by the Federal Communications Commission for 5G wireless networks will interfere with satellite measurements used for weather forecasting. Has the issue been adequately addressed so that the FCC can move forward with auctioning the radio spectrum?

DROEGEMEIER: There’s a process underway preceding the World Radiocommunication Conference this November that’s adjudicating all the competing activities. We have to get together as a nation to ensure that we’re sharing that spectrum as efficiently as possible. I really think we’ll get there. There is a process playing out as I speak, looking at peaceful coexistence of the very important benefits of 5G, which are extraordinary, and other services and capabilities, including weather forecasting.

PT: Putting on your meteorologist hat, what do you think about the weather data interference issue?

DROEGEMEIER: Studies have shown that there would be a profound impact on forecasting if none of the satellite data could be used or if there was a massive diminution of satellite data. I don’t see that happening. I’m absolutely convinced we’ll address this in a way that will bring maximum benefit to taxpayers and minimum disruption to the services we need to provide.

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