Progress, innovation and technology stop for no one. But here we are, three weeks into the Presidency of Donald Trump, and he has yet to appoint any leadership for the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). Yes, the President needs to find a new National Security Advisor and Secretary of Labor nominee, but it is equally important to identify a Director for OSTP and a Chief Technology Officer in short order.
Much as the National Security Council coordinates foreign affairs and national security policy between multiple federal agencies, OSTP coordinates those same federal agencies on policy issues ranging from climate change to Big Data. The importance of OSTP has only grown over the years as innovation and technology have become so integral to our society and economy. During my time in the Clinton Administration, OSTP was an important, but less visible presence. The advent of the Internet, personalized medicine, driverless cars and clean energy pushed OSTP to the forefront in the Obama Administration. And that is where it needs to remain.
OSTP and its dedicated team, which includes the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, played quarterback on a series of important issues over the last few years. They drove all policies and regulations related to science, technology, innovation, research commercialization and even entrepreneurship through the inter-agency policy making process. They coordinated intellectual property policy and industry standards with the Department of Commerce; research funding with the Departments of Defense, Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health; and even worked closely with the National Economic Council on high-growth entrepreneurship policy. And of course, OSTP was often at the forefront of President Obama’s important efforts to fight climate change.
None of these issues went away on November 9, 2016. Indeed, if President Trump really wants to help boost America’s middle class and revitalize “flyover” country, he should maintain OSTP’s role in promoting high-growth entrepreneurship. According the US Census, over the last decade, around 50% of America’s jobs were created by high growth startups. And by any measure, those startups, the venture capital funding them, and the technical and management talent running them, are all based on the East and West Coasts (with acknowledgements to Austin, TX & Salt Lake City, UT). President Trump must continue the work of the Obama Administration and experiment with ways to boost innovation and entrepreneurship in places like Louisiana, Michigan and Nebraska. It is a long-term strategy with a greater likelihood of success than reducing immigration or increasing tariffs.
The march towards driver less cars moves forward, and could threaten nearly 3 million blue-collar Americans who drive vehicles for income. Big Data, the Internet and cloud computing will transform how we access and use information. And technologies like CRISPR are rapidly pushing the boundaries of human evolution – and the power we have over it. These fast-moving technologies and scientific breakthroughs have tremendous implications for how we live and govern ourselves. Just yesterday, a major patent ruling was announced related to CRISPR technology. Who exactly, is briefing the President about this ruling and the enormous implications CRISPR may have on society? Right now, we don’t know.
Of course, OSTP is very important in developing our policies to fight climate change. A real thing. Nearly every federal agency is involved in fighting climate change – from the Department of Defense’s in-depth efforts to understand the impact of rising sea levels and temperature on America’s war fighters and weaponry; to the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and the EPA looking directly at the impact of changing temperature on weather, air, water and food supply. The environment and climate impact everything we do – from health care and farming to foreign policy. Joint efforts across these agencies are coordinated out of the White House – through offices like OSTP and the Council on Environmental Quality.
Unfortunately, the President is considering two individuals for Science Advisor, David Gelernter, a Professor of Computer Science at Yale, and William Happer, a physicist from Princeton, that are outright climate change deniers. Such a selection will make it difficult for the White House, and OSTP to recruit top scientific and technological minds to join them, as most Americans in those fields acknowledge climate change as real and dangerous. It will also kill ongoing policy-making efforts between agencies – efforts that have been in the works for years, including those mandated by America’s participation in the COP 21 Paris Climate Change Treaty.
Somewhere in the world today, a technology is being developed that could transform our lives – for better or worse. Regardless of our politics, it is important that our nation’s leaders are knowledgeable about these new technologies, have thought about their implications for society, and are working with the private sector, Congress and federal agencies to prepare for their impact. That’s what the Office of Science and Technology Policy is for – so use it.