Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier

White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier has started a project that will solicit input from scientists on issues including foreign influence in research.Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier wants to know how researchers would bolster and protect science in the United States. So he’s started a listening tour that kicked off with representatives from academia, industry and government agencies at a summit in Washington DC on 5 November.

Attendees at the largely closed-door event discussed issues including foreign influence in academic research, conflicts of interest and sexual harassment. The project is an attempt to harmonize policies across government science agencies so that it’s easier for federally funded researchers to follow the rules while reducing the administrative burden on individuals and academic institutions, Droegemeier said at the outset of the summit.

This is his first major project at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) since he was sworn in as its director in February. Droegemeier got the ball rolling in May, when he tasked a new panel called the Joint Committee on the Research Environment with reviewing federal research policies.

The move came amid a series of government investigations into academic affairs. They include the crackdown by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on alleged violations of security rules, such as those requiring its grantees to disclose payments from other governments. The NIH has also investigated allegations of sexual harassment against researchers whose work the agency supports, while the National Science Foundation now requires institutions that it funds to report any finding they make with respect to sexual harassment by a grantee.

A glimmer of hope

Researchers tracking the OSTP’s efforts say they are cautiously optimistic, despite the ire that the administration of President Donald Trump has roused for its attempts to slash research budgets and its track record on climate and environmental issues.

“I am hopeful that their efforts to go through this process reflect serious attempts to listen, and are not just theatre,” says Ross McKinney, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington DC.

It’s unclear whether this listening tour will result in any changes across government science agencies, or in improved policies. But scientists are keeping a particularly close eye on rules related to national security and conflicts of interest.

“What we are trying to do is to the extent possible have uniformity,” says Droegemeier. “If every agency does their own thing independent of the other agencies, that is not a good thing.”