The next president should take a dramatic step to show that science is truly important to policy-making and good governance. The best way to do that? Abolish the White House Office of Science and Technology.
How science gets done in America has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and 21st-century presidents ought to restructure the executive office of the White House to keep up.
During the Cold War, the preponderance of U.S. research and development happened in the government sector. Many cutting-edge developments — from semiconductor chips to the Internet — began as R&D projects within national security programs. Technological benefits then spilled over into the private sector.
Even the great engines of private sector innovation flourished under the hand of government. Universities raked in government grants. Bell Labs blossomed because AT&T enjoyed status as government protected monopoly.
But the research world has long since been turned on its head. Today, the lion’s share of research and development starts in the private sector — much of it uninfluenced by government policy.
Where does that leave the role of the president’s science advisers today? It is unclear. Perhaps seeking to trade on the past glories government-fueled R&D, President Obama has amped up the office’s activities, but the results have not been beneficial.
The Obama White House has used the Office of Science and Technology principally to support its pet political causes — like advocacy for global climate change research that matches the president’s views on the topic and can be puffed to justify expanding federal regulations in virtually every aspect of American life.
Indeed, this administration has used the Science and Technology Office just as it has used other executive branch offices — as a tool to exercise executive power in furtherance of his political agenda. Turning what are supposed to be objective offices of experts — be they scientists, national security advisers, or whatever — into politically-driven, rubber-stamping policy cheerleaders is bad for any branch of national policy.
That approach is particularly destructive for developing objective science policies. The president’s top goals for the federal science enterprise ought to be to (1) promote sound public policy; (2) promote responsible stewardship of the government’s scientific resources, programs, infrastructure, and activities; and (3) harness competitive advances in science for protecting the nation’s security.
The president doesn’t need an office of West Wing bureaucrats to accomplish any of these tasks. And there is certainly no need for any one person or office to micromanage the more than $450 billion in annual federal spending on science, which is spread among 15 departments, 12 agencies and 42 federally-directed research centers.
Science and technology policy are integral to governance in virtually every aspect of the federal administration, and good science policy ought to be integral to all federal efforts. But it need not and should not be orchestrated and managed via top-down dictates from the White House.
Rather, the president should rely on his Cabinet to do their jobs and manage their science programs properly. All they require is simple, straight-forward guidance from the top.
What kind of guidance? The president should demand strict transparency and integrity in its regulatory science. Lack of scientific integrity and transparency allows policymakers to construe congressional guidelines according to their own interests and/or the president’s political whims.
Further, any federal science and technology policy should meet two criteria: it must meet a clear, appropriate government objective, and it should be developed only when the private sector is not already addressing — or does not have the capacity to address — the need.
Accountable leadership in science policy does not require more bureaucracy in the White House. Rather, it requires good leaders throughout the executive branch operating with good marching orders.
A wise general once said “don’t tie up the dogs and bark yourself.” When it comes to science policy, this is advice the next president ought to take to heart.
Originally published in The Washington Times