Trump Science Adviser Stresses the Benefits of Private Research Funding

Kelvin Droegemeier’s noncommittal comments on climate change and nod toward increased private-sector research funding raised some eyebrows.

Kelvin Droegemeier’s noncommittal comments on climate change and nod toward increased private-sector research funding raised some eyebrows. Sue Ogrocki/AP

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Kelvin Droegemeier tells academic groups he favors stronger industry ties.

After weeks of low visibility, the White House science adviser, who reported for work in January in the midst of the government shutdown, last week delivered his first speech to a professional gathering and also gave an interview.

But Kelvin Droegemeier’s noncommittal comments on climate change and nod toward increased private-sector research funding raised some eyebrows.

In an appearance on Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy noted that since World War II, there has been “a really sharp rise in basic research being funded by the private sector” that he suggested could be leveraged to strengthen the nation’s overall research and development portfolio, according to AAAS’s account.

The surge in private investment, Droegemeier added, was not in response to reduced basic research funding by the federal government, but “because American companies have the freedom to be creative and to invest and to explore new ideas.”

When the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, he added, “only the federal government could mount a response to that launch. Today, it could easily be a private company or even a startup.”

Droegemeier said a key priority will be protecting federal research that may have national security or economic security impacts. “We want students and researchers in America to reap the benefits of an open [research] environment, but at the same time we have to take appropriate precautions to ensure that our resources do not fall into the hands of those attempting to do us harm or those who would seek to reap the benefits of our hard work without doing hard work themselves,” he said.

Droegemeier backed the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to cut the “research administrative burden” on government and university scientists, saying that paperwork requirements and regulations amount to “a few billion dollars a year” of wasted time.

AAAS CEO and former Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced the speaker by saying he hoped Droegemeier’s “accessible manner” would lead to greater access to policymakers for the adviser and increased attention to science in the administration.

Droegemeier did not volunteer comments on the role of climate change, but in an interview on Feb. 14 with Science magazine, the meteorologist avoided taking a position on what many scientists believe is the single greatest threat to mankind. “The climate system is a very, very complicated thing,” he said in response to a question. “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 also told Science that his office is updating its 2018 compilation of accomplishments during Trump’s first year. And he praised the acting head of OSTP, technologist Michael Krastsios, but suggested that his own arrival may mean “you’ll be hearing a bit more about the science side.”

At least one science group expressed alarm at the adviser’s inaugural comments. ”We are concerned that he appears to think private funding could serve as a different kind of support for scientific research, either from private companies or philanthropies,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Government Executive. But such funding can’t be a replacement for public funding, he said, because “public funding is in the public interest.”