Ex-Obama officials join forces to fight Trump on science budget cuts
Former staff members from President Barack Obama’s science office are fanning out, finding jobs in academia, at nonprofit groups and elsewhere, but they continue to work together, largely behind the scenes. This science diaspora, as one former staff member called it, is ready to push forward on the ambitious science-related agendas of the previous administration and to defend against the attacks on science emanating from the new White House.
“There was a pretty explicit sense of community-building as people walked out the door,” said Kumar Garg, who served as a senior adviser inside Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). “People have this really strong sense of mission that they want to carry forward.”
OSTP is housed inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House and is part of the executive branch. Its director — John Holdren under Obama but among the unfilled positions in the Trump administration — traditionally also serves as the science adviser to the president. OSTP offers up technical expertise on a wide range of issues, helps the president launch science-related initiatives, and in general serves as the science-and-technology support system for much of the government.
Arguably, OSTP just wrapped up its most influential eight-year period since the science adviser’s early days under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. (OSTP was officially formed by statute in 1976, although other similar offices preceded it.) Phil Larson, who focused on space exploration issues at OSTP under Obama for five years before leaving for SpaceX and now the University of Colorado, said the way Obama and Holdren emphasized science and technology left a mark on those who worked there.
“Their time at OSTP, specifically under President Obama and Dr. Holdren, galvanized a whole new kind of passion from them, because they saw it being paid attention to at the highest levels,” he said.
But after Donald Trump’s election, it became clear that science would not have such a prominent seat at the table. OSTP staff members decided to form a phalanx of science- and tech-friendly experts and policy wonks. The coalition is informal — they stay in touch via Facebook and Google groups and lines of communication they established before heading out the door.
“A position at White House OSTP means that you have developed a pretty amazing network,” said Cristin Dorgelo, who served as chief of staff under Holdren.
Most of OSTP left when the administration turned over, with a staff that peaked around 140 people now down to a much more bare-bones cohort. (OSTP would not divulge the exact number on staff.)
The former staff members aim to push forward on STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — efforts, and they consider themselves on call to help where needed.
“I can check in and say, ‘Here’s a little bit of a fire drill, who is interested?’ ” Garg said.
The fire drills may involve helping out on Capitol Hill when congressional staff members need input on science-related policy issues, connecting experts with the government office or a nongovernment organization that needs them, or, important in the coming weeks and months, working on responses to President Trump’s and congressional budget requests.
Many ex-staff members said the budgeting battle is their primary focus. The White House released a blueprint this month confirming the science community’s worst fears. If enacted, the cuts would be staggering: The Environmental Protection Agency would lose more than 30 percent of its budget. NASA’s earth science section would lose four missions and more than $100 million. The National Institutes of Health, the primary source of biomedical research funding in the country, would lose 20 percent of its $31 billion. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would disappear.
One former OSTP staff member said many in the group are in touch with agencies, politicians, NGOs and advocacy organizations, “making sure all the groups are ready for what is going to be a pretty consequential budget fight.”
Members of the diaspora are reluctant to give away specifics of their plans. Why offer up your playbook to the opposition as the game is just getting started? But the Google groups and phone trees are becoming more and more active, one staffer said. “We are preparing, we are talking.”
Other issues that have energized the group include scientific integrity and making sure science isn’t muzzled. Also among the early projects has been coordination with the March for Science leadership, since many see it as a time to consolidate pro-science messaging.
The march, which will take place April 22 in Washington and in other U.S. cities, has the support of major organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the Society for Neuroscience and many others. Kristen Gunther, the March for Science’s mission strategy leader, said the OSTPers have been “incredible resources” in planning, organizing and forming partnerships.
“They have also given us advice on the interaction between science and federal policy to help us better understand where we can effectively direct our efforts,” she said.
Some said that they are also hearing from people on the inside. Current staff members involved with some of the projects started under Obama and Holdren — the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, say, or the Computer Science for All initiative — are now looking to former OSTPers for guidance on how to maintain those projects.
“We’re being called upon — sometimes behind the scenes — as a resource,” said Larson, highlighting NASA and space-related issues as another area where that is occurring. “I think you’ll see that continue, because I think it’s less politically based, and more [that] civil servants want to do good work.”
The Obama administration was considered among the most science-friendly administrations in history, and his staff members retain a sense of mission.
“I think the moment does call for a certain degree of focus,” Garg said. “This is a really unheralded moment. People want to step through it together.”