Last Friday, the White House science advisor gave his first major speech since being sworn into office earlier this year. In it, he called for the deregulation of scientific research and greater industry involvement – while effectively ignoring the anti-science rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration over the last two years.
"This is the best time in history to come into science," Kelvin Droegemeier told scientists at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Adding – somewhat controversially – "science and technology are alive and well in the Trump administration".
Droegemeier was announced as Trump's pick to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in August 2018, following the longest vacancy of the post since its establishment 42 years ago.
As an experienced meteorologist with a special interest in extreme weather events, he was a respected and popular choice for the job. Not only has he appeared on dozens of peer-reviewed papers (his CV is 55-pages long) but he has served as an administrator at the University of Oklahoma and as vice-chair of the National Science Foundation’s governing board.
At the time, Rush Holt, the chief executive officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, praised the decision, saying “Science and technology are embedded in almost every issue that the president deals with, and since 2016, we’ve urged the nomination of a respected scientist or engineer.” Adding, “Kelvin Droegemeier is such a scientist.”
So, what has been the reaction to Droegemeier’s first speech as head of the OSTP?
Mixed, Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told IFLScience.
“He said the usual things about support for science, basic research, but a lot of people – including myself – thought that there really wasn’t very much in the speech.”
Droegemeier referenced artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and quantum information science, and he spoke on issues surrounding diversity and allegations of sexual harassment in the sciences. But the majority of his speech was spent discussing the deregulation and use of private sector funding in scientific research.
“America is truly now entering a second golden era in the endless frontier of science and technology,” Droegemeier said. He stressed the need to take an "enterprise-wide view" involving more partnerships between private companies like Bell Laboratories and academic and government organizations, another somewhat controversial opinion.
“Industry funds a lot of good research but mostly it funds taking research to basic to application,” Rosenberg, who was present at the speech on Friday, explained. “In general, industry wants to do research that is proprietary because their goal is to make money and so I think it’s dangerous to think of industry funding for research as a replacement for government funding.”
(Droegemeier's speech fell on the same day Trump signed a bill into law that will see funding for several US science agencies increase by around 5 percent, after both the House and Senate rejected his administration's proposed cut of about 8 percent.)
It wasn't just what he talked about, but what he didn't that confused scientists in the room. Droegemeier spoke little about his plans for the office and effectively ignored the antiscience messaging of the Trump administration. A UCS report counts more than 80 attacks against science in the first two years of the presidency, while others have it clocked at 287. Helpfully, various media outlets and universities are keeping a running tally.
Still, it's early days and many are just happy there is now a certified scientist heading up the OSTP. Time will tell how Droegemeier takes the position forward.
"We are really happy that a highly credentialled scientist is in the position," Rosenberg added.
"I just hope he can follow through on some of the needs we have because we’re really in a very worrisome position with the use and abuse of science in the Trump administration."