Report calls for study of Science and Technology Policy Office

By Andrew Noyes

Lawmakers should examine the role and responsibilities of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and question whether the 33-year-old office is effective, according to a Congressional Research Service report released Thursday.

Some in the science community, including a panel of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last year, have called for the office director to be elevated to a Cabinet-level post.

A late December CRS report states that if the adviser has a close relationship with the president, certain science stakeholders may fear politicization. But an adviser who understands the sensitive relationship between the Oval Office and science community may be an administration asset, it said.

An alternative would be for Congress to make the office an independent agency.

While that might provide some distance between the president and the office it but could be viewed as inappropriately distancing the two, the report said.

The science community objected when President Richard Nixon moved the precursor to OSTP to the National Science Foundation.

Before being sworn in, President Obama emphasized the importance of science and technology advice, saying in a December address that “promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s about protecting free and open inquiry.”

In that speech, he stated his intention to appoint Harvard physicist John Holdren as his science adviser, office director and co-chairman of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

He tapped Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who ran the National Institutes of Health during the Clinton administration, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Eric Lander as the Council’s co-chairmen.

Neal Lane, who was President Bill Clinton’s science adviser, urged Obama in a paper circulated Thursday to ensure the OSTP director has the title “assistant to the president” because it indicates his direct access to the commander in chief.

Science advisers to Clinton and President George H.W. Bush all held the title, but John Marburger, who served in the Bush administration, did not.

He also was not confirmed until 10 months after the administration took office, Lane noted.

Technology policy watchers have urged Obama to make the yet-to-be-named chief technology officer for the federal government a high-level official at the White House.