WASHINGTON — For the past 19 months, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has operated with a skeleton crew. For over a year, the top-ranking adviser has not even been a scientist, but rather a 30-something political science major who most recently worked for Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Desperate former employees even set up a secret shadow network to provide advice to lawmakers.
Gone are the days when science was high on the agenda, when a staff of more than a hundred helped coordinate the federal government’s response to the Ebola outbreak, launched the Precision Medicine Initiative to personalize health treatments, and spearheaded a $100 million BRAIN Initiative that boosted research into conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Gone, too, is the president who might fire off a marshmallow cannon at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But now that the president has nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the office, some of that science might be coming back.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Droegemeier will instantly become the country’s top-ranking scientist. The post will give him broad latitude to weigh in on anything from infectious disease outbreaks to oil spills to the nuclear program or even biotechnology.
He’ll have the power, too, to stand up for science in an administration whose top officials have largely eschewed it.
Droegemeier is scientifically literate, dedicated to basic research, and committed to making sure that discoveries make it out of the lab and help real people. STAT interviewed more than half a dozen scientists who worked with Droegemeier, and each was excited that someone as conscientious and fair-minded might be headed to Washington.
He’ll bring extensive experience with the day-to-day travails of scientific research, as well as the thorny questions of how federal research dollars should be allocated. And he’ll have the support of the wider scientific community, including John Holdren, leader of OSTP under President Obama, who called his appointment “a solid choice.”
“He’s not swampy or anything,” said Eve Gruntfest, a former geography professor who for four years directed a research program on meteorology and social science at the University of Oklahoma, where Droegemeier has worked since the 1980s.
Droegemeier has his work cut out for him: The Trump administration has been skeptical of science and at times, even openly hostile to it.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, for example, proposed slashing NIH funding by 18 percent while simultaneously cutting research budgets at other agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency removed information about climate change from its website.
And Trump himself has openly questioned the safety of vaccines, implying during his campaign that they can cause autism, which is not true.
Of course, the president will be free to take or ignore Droegemeier’s advice. Not all science advisers have enjoyed close access to the president. President George W. Bush, for example, appointed a physicist as science adviser, but withheld from him the title of assistant to the president, reducing his influence.
Trump’s OSTP has not be completely dormant. In March, it released a report highlighting the office’s work over the previous year, noting its “robust team of over 50 staff members,” and calling attention to initiatives like “Technology Week,” which consisted of conversations between Trump and business leaders. The office also recently launched a committee on quantum computing, a technology that has the potential to revolutionize cybersecurity and execute calculations at breakneck speed.
A spokesperson for OSTP said that Michael Kratsios, the political science major who, as deputy chief technology officer, is currently the highest-ranking official at the office, has a background in the technology policy issues over which the office also has jurisdiction, and has moreover not been serving as science adviser.
Formally, OSTP is tasked with providing “advice on scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of issues that require attention at the highest level of Government,” according to the law establishing it in 1976. Functionally, it also puts an advocate for the importance of science within arm’s length of the president.
And by all accounts, Droegemeier is up to the task. A meteorologist by training, Droegemeier oversaw a large research center at the University of Oklahoma. One former colleague described him as an incredibly hard worker, prone to spending weekends in the office. And a former student said Droegemeier would stay in the lab into the wee hours of the morning, rather than miss a key deadline.
Droegemeier himself declined to speak with STAT for this story, but wrote that he is “looking forward” to meeting a STAT reporter, ending one email with two exclamation points. (He’s been known to use three when discussing particularly scintillating topics like acquiring new technology for research projects, Paul Woodward, an astrophysics professor at the University of Minnesota, related.)
Over the years, he moved up the academic ranks and eventually became the university’s vice president of research. He served as a science adviser on state and federal committees.
The experience gave him exposure to a wide range of scientific enterprises and fields, from genetic engineering to gravitational waves. At one meeting of the National Science Board, on which Droegemeier served from 2004 to 2016 and which he co-chaired starting in 2012, Feng Zhang explained how CRISPR worked, alluding in his presentation to its ability to one day treat diseases like HIV.
Droegemeier is also well-versed in the way the government provides funding for basic research. He’s frequently invited to testify before Congress, where he impressed lawmakers with his rapid-fire responses and expertise.
Throughout the years, Droegemeier has emerged as a staunch defender of government-funded research, especially basic research that might not soon be commercially profitable.
“Returns on basic research are often unpredictable and are often times very uncertain, and they take sometimes years to materialize,” Droegemeier said at a 2013 congressional hearing. “As a consequence, the federal government has a very important central role in supporting that research because it really is too risky for private companies that are looking to make their next quarter statement or the next half-year statement.”
Indeed, he helped run an organization that doled out some of that funding. As a member of the National Science Board, Droegemeier helped to set policy for the National Science Foundation, which provided about $6 billion of funding in 2016 to support basic research, mostly at universities and private companies.
But Droegemeier also appreciates that even the best laboratory research might not actually improve people’s lives unless scientists find a way to bring it into the real world. Droegemeier’s colleagues say he’s been a leader in advocating for research into social science and behavior so that scientists can better understand how to use their work to improve people’s lives.
He argued in 2013, for example, that “research into the barriers to the adoption of healthy behaviors is crucial if we are to capitalize on the insights of the biomedical sciences into the drivers of obesity and disease.”
His colleagues are clear that Droegemeier’s true passion is meteorology, but he’s also proven a keen ability to collaborate across different scientific disciplines. That’s a useful skill for someone who will be running an office tasked, in part, with coordinating research across vastly different agencies, from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health to the Department of Energy.
Droegemeier has been a professor at the University of Oklahoma, his alma mater, since 1985 — and worked hard at the university to improve the way different departments there worked together.
“He undertook what I would think of as a badly needed modernization of how things were organized,” said John Snow, who served as dean of Oklahoma’s college of atmospheric and geographic sciences from 1993 until 2010.
Ming Xue, a meteorology professor, said that Droegemeier transformed the university’s research centers from loose collaborations of scientists, scrambling for funding, into formal organizations with far more support from the university.
Another of Droegemeier’s major projects — a push to help universities with smaller budgets compete with richer institutions for grand funding — signals his commitment to making sure resources are allocated fairly.
Droegemeier chaired a committee that made reforms to “cost-sharing” for NSF grants, a wonky word for a relatively simple concept in federal funding. When the NSF announced a grant for, say, $10 million, institutions competing for the grant might offer to “share” some of the cost of the research.
“We’ll put up $1 million if you give us the remaining $9 million,” an institution might offer. That policy put poorer institutions, like Droegemeier’s university, at a disadvantage.
In 2009, Droegemeier’s committee offered up a new policy, changing the rules so that this practice, so-called “voluntary” cost sharing, was no longer allowed for NSF grants.
The change “leveled the playing field quite a bit,” Nadine Lymn, the NSB’s communications director, told STAT.
It’s a change that Droegemeier might like to see in other areas of research, where voluntary cost-sharing is still permitted, he hinted in written remarks submitted as part of his testimony at a 2017 congressional hearing.
“Unfortunately, other Federal agencies did not follow suit, and consequently … voluntary cost sharing is still allowed,” Droegemeier wrote.
There are signs, too, that Droegemeier will be better prepared than most for the tempest that is Trump’s Washington: he’s got quite the reputation as a storm chaser.
Droegemeier once interrupted a conversation to rush onto the roof of a building as a tornado-producing storm was forming. University of Minnesota’s Woodward, who accompanied him to the roof, said he will never forget the day.
It was the summer of 1986 and Droegemeier was in Minneapolis, visiting a colleague. The storm passing through that July day was exactly the kind that Droegemeier had spent years studying in graduate school.
“We’re looking at this wall of dark clouds, and Kelvin just said, well, you know, we ought to be feeling the [wind] from that storm just about now,” Woodward said. “And within about 30 seconds, we were nearly blown off the roof.”
“He wanted to immediately go to the parking garage, get in my car, and chase the storm,” Woodward said. “I said, no way, I’m not driving toward that thing.”
On another occasion, Droegemeier himself made the drive, Woodward said. And as he drove through the storm, a sharp piece of hail punched straight through the roof of his car.
Luckily for the Trump administration, it landed not on Kelvin, but on the passenger seat.