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Trump’s science adviser on research ethics, immigration and presidential tweets

Five months into the job, Kelvin Droegemeier tells Nature what it’s like to work with the US president.

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Kelvin Droegemeier

As a meteorologist, Kelvin Droegemeier specialized in the study of extreme weather events.Credit: Stephen Voss

When meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in February, he inherited an office that had been without a leader for two years — and became the top science adviser to President Donald Trump.

Trump's push to cut government spending on research, and his policies on issues such as immigration, have caused controversy in science. Nature spoke to Droegemeier in mid-April — two months into his tenure — about these policies, his plans and what it’s like to work with the president. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The number of OSTP staff dropped precipitously during Trump’s first two years in office. What is the situation now?

The lights were definitely on, and there was a lot of work actually getting done. We have people cycle through. Some of them are on detail for a year, so there’s kind of a constant refresh. I have brought additional people on board in some of the areas that I’m going to be working on a little bit more.

I’ll be bringing somebody on in a position I’m calling assistant director for academic engagement. And there have been some other folks that have been brought in, in space weather as an example. At last count, we had about 68 people overall, which is roughly the average of OSTP over the years. It’s not at all the case that, with me coming, we somehow staffed up. There were a lot of folks already here.

What issues will the academic-engagement position address?

One piece is the research administrative burden. The word ‘burden’ is a little bit of a misnomer. Some of these things, like human-subjects-research protections and animal research, are very important and necessary. Nobody argues that point.

There are other compliance activities, though, that have been shown to have very little impact. For example, the lack of harmonization in things like the forms that faculty fill out when they apply for grants, or the curriculum vitae information they submit. The fact that there are different forms and structures across agencies means that they spend a lot of time reformatting something.

The Trump administration has been extremely supportive of reducing these burdens, to unlock the talent of our researchers and not having them spend their time on these things that are unnecessary and detract from research. What we’re talking about is wasting intellectual talent, and that’s really something that is that we can’t tolerate.

What other topics is your office working on?

One is what I call safe and productive research environments. A dimension of that is sexual harassment, but that’s one of many. If we’re going to improve diversity and enhance diversity, we have to have research environments that are welcoming and accommodating to everyone. We want to make sure that those environments do not disadvantage particular people, keep them out, or cause them to leave once they’re there.

Another one is integrity in research and trustworthiness — it’s very, very important. One of the things I like to tout about our research enterprise is that it’s underpinned by American values. We want to make sure that all the research is being conducted with integrity, and that we’re training students and faculty and making sure that they behave ethically.

We’ve also talked a lot about what I would call research security: balancing openness of our research environment with the very real threat that exists, in some cases, of theft of intellectual property, espionage and things like that. I’ve seen a great change in universities in the last couple of years, where I think researchers realize this is real. But we can’t overreact. We have to balance thoughtful prudence as we’re conducting research with making sure that we have an open research environment.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was disbanded at the end of the Obama administration. Do you plan to appoint a new council?

We’re moving forward with that, and we’ve already identified some individuals — it’s very exciting. I think everybody is going to be really pleased. PCAST will be coming back, definitely, this year.

What issues will PCAST address?

They’re going to be very mainstream. We’re not going to be writing lots of reports, we’re not going to be having endless meetings. We’re going to really focus on policy actions that can be implemented and make a difference. That’s something that I think is so important about the Trump administration is that it’s very action-oriented.

The president has made space exploration a priority. What do you think about the goals he’s set?

It’s extraordinary that President Trump relaunched the National Space Council. It’s such an important time for human exploration in space, for unmanned exploration. OSTP has a role in this. We are involved with things like space weather, near-Earth objects, space-traffic management. I know [NASA administrator] Jim Bridenstine extremely well — he was my congressman in Oklahoma — and we’re working closely together.

I think the president’s goal of landing a human on the Moon in 2024 is very, very exciting. And establishing a sustainable presence [on the Moon] in 2028 is very bold, but we’re about doing bold, big things.

Has the president called on your expertise as science adviser, or included the OSTP in policy discussions?

I’m still pretty new here. I think people are still getting to know me, but certainly I’m available to the president. I have had lots of conversations with folks, and I have met with the president and also with the vice-president. I accompanied him to the space council meeting in Huntsville [Alabama] a few weeks ago.

We make sure that, for anything that has science as a dimension in policy, science is at the table. I frankly haven’t seen any situation where science can’t contribute or where we have been left out. We’re always brought to the table as a partner. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting with several science ministers since I’ve been here and also many university presidents. We talked about bilateral science agreements, we talked about joint interests and things like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, quantum information science and advanced manufacturing.

For three years in a row, the president has proposed massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other science agencies. How does that square with your belief that the White House wants to promote science?

When I came in, the 2020 budget was already done. But I think that we have to prioritize and we also have to partner. If you look only at the federal budget, you’re missing the bigger picture of the private sector and the research that they do — where a very substantial amount of it is basic research — and the private foundations that do a great deal of research, and then our own universities that fund 25% of all the research that they do.

There are a lot of really good examples of partnerships, one of which is the NSF working with Boeing on workforce development. Boeing is providing around US$11 million as part of the INCLUDES programme at the NSF to build diversity in STEM [science, technology, engineering and medicine] fields. The NSF is committing $10 million to look at upskilling and reskilling workers in technical fields and STEM areas as well. That’s a beautiful example of a partnership where a private company comes in and has equity.

Are you concerned that Trump’s strict immigration policies could discourage foreign students and scientists from coming to the United States?

Certainly, to have a robust and successful scientific enterprise you need students — you need good students, you need lots of students, you need students from diverse backgrounds, diverse points of view, and so on. I've not talked to one individual who says, “You know, I want an illegal immigrant in my laboratory.” We want people who are here legally. Research is about complying. I think it’s very, very important that we are open and welcoming to individuals who share our values, who come from other countries.

At the same time, we want to make sure that we’re bringing in a lot of Americans. I worry a lot about diversity in STEM fields for our own citizens coming in. So I think it’s an all-of-the-above strategy. We want to have more and more Americans coming into STEM programmes from all areas of the country, students who may be their [families’] first college students, who may be economically disadvantaged but are extremely smart. We’ve got to give them a seat at the table. We want them there. We also want to make sure that students come from other countries and see this as a great opportunity.

But even if students are exempted from policies such as the travel ban against citizens of several majority-Muslim countries, these moves are still spreading fear and uncertainty about whether foreign scientists and their families are welcome in the United States.

One of the things we always try to do is to make sure that we’re messaging appropriately and messaging facts. There are perceptions out there of certain things and then there are realities. The reality is the president reversed the H-1B visa process where we could get many, many more people coming into the MS and PhD fields. I thought that was fantastic. So you see very tangible actions this administration has taken to promote the American research enterprise and saying, “Yes, we want you to come here and to study.”

I think we have to deal with the perception, but also the reality that there are threats to our enterprise.

The next-generation wireless network, known as 5G, is still under development. But in February, Trump tweeted that he wants 6G technology, which doesn’t exist, “in the United States as soon as possible”. What do you think about that?

I love the fact that the president mentioned 6G because it shows how excited he is about the future of America. I don’t personally know what 6G is — I’m not an expert in 5G, either — but I love that sort of passion to look forward and be bold in our thinking, because as a scientist that’s what I’ve always tried to do. It’s sort of baked into me, and I just I love that he said that. That was a great comment.

Does it make your job as science adviser harder when Trump tweets and talks about things such as windmill noise causing cancer?

I think the president tweets what he tweets, and as president that’s his thing. I think sometimes, you know, he does things in a way that he’s joking around and people don’t maybe realize that. I don’t know.

Nature 569, 169-170 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01396-z
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