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Kelvin Droegemeier
White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier addresses the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., with a video image of him looming in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump’s newly minted science adviser reached out to his peers today at one of the country’s biggest scientific meetings and called for the establishment of a “second bold era” of basic research.

“I hope that you never forget that I am one of you, that I came from your ranks,” Kelvin Droegemeier, who was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Monday, told hundreds of attendees here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The University of Oklahoma meteorologist is coming into a job that was vacant for two years, in an administration that hasn’t exactly been viewed as science-friendly. The White House’s environmental policies are a particular sore point, in light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and regulatory rollbacks.

But Droegemeier’s selection has gotten generally good reviews from the science community. AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a Ph.D. physicist and former congressman, took note of Droegemeier’s reputation as a “solid scientist” in his introduction.

“Everyone who works with him finds him to have a very accessible manner,” Holt said. “We scientists hope and trust that this will turn into accessible policy.”

In his talk, Droegemeier invoked the legacy of science adviser Vannevar Bush, who set the stage for America’s postwar science boom in 1945 with a report he wrote for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, titled “Science: The Endless Frontier.”

Droegemeier said modern-day America remains the world’s leader in science and technology, but warned that other countries were “nipping at our heels.”

“In many respects, we’re kind of thinking in the same ways that we have since World War II … and I would call that period from the Bush treatise in World War II up to the present that first great bold era of science and technology in that endless frontier,” Droegemeier said. “The past 75 years have been extraordinary, and I think we’re about to turn a page into a new frontier.”

He noted that when the Soviets launched Sputnik to kick off the Space Race in 1957, “only our federal government could mount the response to that launch.”

“Today, it could easily be a private company, and perhaps even a startup,” Droegemeier said.

He said the second bold era would take advantage of the full sweep of America’s research assets, underpinned by American values and based on three pillars:

  • Understanding America’s research and development ecosystem in a new context: Droegemeier called for a quadrennial assessment that takes stock of the entire R&D enterprise, including research conducted by the government, the private sector, academia and non-profit organizations. He pointed to the example of artificial intelligence research: What’s the future demand for AI, and what assets can be deployed to supercharge progress in that field? “The answer is that we don’t really have a clue,” he said. “Getting a handle on this as a portfolio is a real challenge, but in my view, if we’re able to do that, it will really help us think about how to strategically invest and move forward.”
  • Leveraging the collective strength of R&D sectors through innovative partnerships: Droegemeier talked about rekindling the spirit of “those famous blue-sky research labs of the past,” such as Bell Labs, where the transistor was born. He suggested creating a network of “Alpha Institutes” to pursue “absolutely transformational ideas on some of the biggest challenges that face humanity today, like space exploration, climate change, eradicating disease and making it possible for people to live longer and healthier lives.” These institutes would be located at colleges and universities, and would be funded primarily by industries and non-profits.
  • Ensure that America’s research environments are safe, secure and welcoming: Droegemeier said he would work with the scientific community to tackle the issue of harassment at research institutions. He said another one of his top priorities would be to make sure 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.” And he called for “reducing the unnecessary administrative burdens that divert researchers’ time and attention away from innovating and discovery.” He estimated that such burdens cost a few billion dollars a year.

After the talk, Droegemeier got a tentative vote of support from Harvard physicist John Holdren, who served as President Barack Obama’s science adviser.

“I think Kelvin’s going to do a great job,” Holdren told GeekWire.

He added that Droegemeier is likely to face extra challenges because he’s joining the White House team halfway through Trump’s term of office. Holdren hoped that the White House would follow up by making long-overdue appointments to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, or PCAST.

AAAS’ Holt said Droegemeier’s speech was “a good talk,” but held off on discussing specific suggestions, such as the Alpha Institute concept.

“At the moment, it’s just talk,” Holt told GeekWire.

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