White House Science Pick Could Influence NIH Policy, Budget

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By Jeannie Baumann

An Oklahoma meteorologist has been tapped to fill a critical post in shaping White House science policy that’s been vacant for a year and a half.

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Kelvin Droegemeier as his first science adviser, who still needs to be confirmed by the Senate. Droegemeier is currently the vice president for research and regents’ professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He’s also served on the National Science Board, a high-level science committee that advises both the president and Congress, under both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

The nomination of Droegemeier, whose formal title would be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), comes the same day the White House Office of Management and Budget released a memo outlining federal research and development priorities for fiscal year 2020. Taken together, these developments could indicate the Trump administration plans to turn more of its attention to R&D policy.

Adviser Can Shape Science Budget

There’s been no science adviser since John P. Holdren stepped down as OSTP director in January 2017, marking the longest vacancy in that position since Congress created it in 1976. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) urged the president in March to fill the top OSTP slot as soon as possible.

Without a director, the OSTP hasn’t had a leader to shape work that cuts across all the science and technology agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. For example, the NIH’s work to develop a data sharing policy stems from a directive Holdren made a few years ago that required all science agencies to develop data sharing plans.

The science adviser also plays a critical role in shaping the overall R&D budget, including medical research funding, that goes before Congress.

Praise From Groups

Mary Woolley, president and chief executive officer of Research!America, told Bloomberg Law in an Aug. 1 email that Droegemeier has an “outstanding track record in service to science in the public’s interest” and urged Congress to confirm him quickly.

Rush Holt, chief executive officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science, also praised the president’s pick in a July 31 statement.

“The incoming OSTP director needs to be quickly integrated into the administration’s decision-making and not only on topics with an obvious science connection like infectious disease response, environmental stewardship, and energy security, but also the many topics involving science not so obviously,” said Holt, who’s both a physicist and former Democratic House member from New Jersey.

OMB Memorandum

The OMB memorandum, which is designed to help federal agencies shape their FY 2020 budget submissions, covers a wide array of topics from wireless networks to space exploration and energy. A brief section on “American Medical Innovation” indicates the NIH should continue the work it’s already doing.

“Billions of people around the world benefit from American medical breakthroughs,” the OMB memo said. “Agencies should prioritize basic medical research, particularly for personalized medicine, areas underserved by industry, disease prevention and health promotion, and the translation of these biomedical discoveries into life-saving diagnostics, treatments, and cures.”

About 83 percent of the NIH’s $37.3 billion budget funds research grants at universities and other institutions, and about half of that goes to basic research. Personalized, or precision, medicine also remains a top priority of the agency, which is leading the government’s largest precision medicine effort to date. It’s a national study called the All of Us Research Project, which aims to enroll a million Americans to advance a practice of medicine that accounts for individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology.

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