Ex-Obama of­fi­cials join forces to fight Trump on sci­ence bud­get cuts

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAVE LEVITAN health­sci­ence@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/speak­ing-of-sci­ence

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.”

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