A 2021 Vision for a Stronger Office of Science and Technology Policy

September 24, 2020 | 11:15 am
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor


Today, we continue our release of recommendations on how the federal government can strengthen science-based decisionmaking and scientific integrity across federal agencies in 2021 and beyond. One of the fact sheets released today focuses on recommendations for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

OSTP plays a critical role in setting the US science and technology agenda, as well as in coordinating experts across and outside the federal government to seek guidance on and help with implementing that agenda. The office also helps to set the White House’s science and technology budget, plays a significant role in fostering international relationships on science and technology, and informs the president on critical science and technology issues.

The office is incredibly important for charting our path to solving some of our nation’s, and even the world’s, largest science-based challenges. The office also is important to help advise the president on the best available science during public health emergencies, such as the pandemic that we are currently combating.

However, since 2017, OSTP has taken a back seat on science and technology matters. An OSTP director was not appointed until 2019, whereas OSTP directors have been appointed far more quickly in the past. Because an OSTP director was missing for so long, the qualifications of individuals making decisions about research and development budgets have been unclear. Further, the number staff working at OSTP has been at one of its lowest levels in the past 20 years. Surprisingly, the OSTP director was not among those initially asked to serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Due to the important role that OSTP plays in leading and coordinating decisions that affect the health and safety of our environment and the public, the office must be strengthened in 2021 and beyond. And because we find ourselves in the midst of challenges with significant consequences for public health and our environment, there is no time to lose—the office must be staffed fully and take actions quickly to provide science-based solutions to these challenges.

Working groups

The OSTP should develop, coordinate, and participate in interagency working groups on pressing science and technology issues. Here are three that OSTP should consider forming in its first 100 days.

The Scientific Integrity Working Group

This working group should include at least one person from each science-based agency who oversees that agency’s implementation of SI policy. The working group should discuss issues regarding the implementation of SI policies and practices and how agencies might improve them. Additionally, this interagency working group should collaborate with OSTP staff to standardize criteria for SI policies across science-based federal agencies. This information should inform an update to the OSTP’s 2010 memo on scientific integrity, to be issued by the beginning of 2023.

The COVID-19 Working Group

This working group should be comprised of public health experts, economists, and OSTP staff, and should discuss ways to bolster the consistent, comprehensive collection of case data broken down by race, ethnicity, occupation, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other demographics such as socioeconomic factors and disability status. It should help identify agency functions that could reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus or lessen community comorbidities (e.g., reducing air pollution). The group should work to secure a strong budget for research and development on the novel coronavirus, oversee the development and distribution of a vaccine, determine how best to distribute this vaccine to underserved communities and others most at risk, and ensure that scientists can freely interact with and provide accurate scientific information to the public. The committee should investigate effective means to ensure that personal protective equipment is in good supply and available for frontline workers now and well into the future.

The Environmental Justice Working Group

This working group should be comprised of environmental justice experts across the federal government, environmental justice advocates, community members, and OSTP staff, and should work to establish or continue environmental justice activities related to science and technology. The group should develop guidance to ensure that political considerations do not cancel, suppress, or otherwise hinder scientific studies on marginalized communities. Working group members should develop guidance on how agencies could consider cumulative impacts when developing science-based policies that affect underserved communities. In addition, the group should discuss processes that federal agencies might implement to include equity and environmental justice in research, analyses, and science-informed policies.

In addition to these working groups, the president should move quickly to nominate and appoint an OSTP director. For this key position, the president should choose a scientist or engineer of significant national standing, with advanced degrees in a science or engineering field. The president should make every effort to nominate an individual from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The president should choose a person who understands the US innovation system, is familiar with issues of global cooperation and competition, and possesses extensive networks in the science and technology community. The person also must have strong leadership and interpersonal skills.

We need scientific leadership

Science is still the best way to help us solve the novel coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and antibiotic resistance to name a few challenges. We need leadership from those who understand science and policy and can help advise our president and our government on the best science-based solutions. This is exactly what OSTP was set up to do many years ago. In 2021, let us make sure that we have a fully functioning and effective OSTP in place to help lead our nation through the science and technology issues we face today.