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By Mitch Ambrose
The White House issued its annual R&D priorities memorandum to the heads of federal science agencies on August 30, offering them guidance as they prepare their budget request submissions for fiscal year 2021.
Many of the priorities restate or elaborate on ones articulated in last year’s memo. For instance, it again promotes R&D underpinning “Industries of the Future,” such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science. It also retains language favoring “early-stage” energy research over later-stage technology development and adds a new emphasis on nuclear energy R&D, including work on a proposed fast-neutron irradiation user facility.
Several entirely new priorities are included, such as research relating to “Earth system predictability,” ocean exploration, critical minerals, high-risk high-reward research, and research integrity.
Following tradition, the memo is co-signed by the heads of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for assembling the president’s budget request for submission to Congress in February each year. However, this is the first memo the White House has issued since Kelvin Droegemeier’s confirmation as OSTP director.
Droegemeier’s influence is discernable throughout the document, particularly in its emphasis that the US research enterprise should uphold “American values,” which are defined as encompassing “free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness.” The memo also incorporates the priorities of the newly established Joint Committee on Research Environments (JCORE), an interagency panel focused on topics such as combatting sexual harassment and securing research assets from undue influence or misappropriation by foreign governments.
The document elaborates on Droegemeier’s conception of the enterprise as having entered a “Second Bold Era,” which it states is characterized by not only its unprecedented opportunities, but also “new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively.” Alluding to tensions within the research community over current research security initiatives, it states, “[Success] will depend upon striking a balance between the openness of our research ecosystem and the protection of our ideas and research outcomes.”
Speaking to FYI, Droegemeier stressed that the work of JCORE is a top priority for OSTP and federal science agencies, saying that its Research Security Subcommittee, for instance, has met seven times since the panel was established in May and that “actionable” outcomes are forthcoming. “It's all hands on deck,” he said.
Droegemeier highlighted the new section on Earth system prediction as a notable addition to the memo. It declares, “Knowing the extent to which components of the Earth system are practicably predictable — from individual thunderstorms to long-term global change — is vitally important for physical understanding of the Earth system, assessing the value of prediction results, guiding federal investments, developing effective policy, and improving predictive skill.”
Droegemeier also drew attention to the memo’s call for agencies to prioritize “transformative research of high risk and potentially high reward.”
“We’ve got to be comfortable with failure on some of these big bets that we make. And I think, frankly, we've gotten away from that as a country,” he said, attributing the shift away from such research in part to budgetary pressures that make grant reviewers more conservative in their recommendations.
Asked about the tension between the desire to increase support for high-risk, high reward research and the administration’s past proposals to sharply reduce federal support for science, he said, “The key thing there is to have conversations about what the priorities are. Obviously, you would like to be able to do lots and lots and lots of things, and you can't do everything.”
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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