Science and Technology Innovation Program

White House Science Office Needs Critical Upgrade

Enhanced Capacity for Science and Technology Policymaking in the White House is Critical to Addressing Challenges Facing the Nation

Jun 17, 2008

The science and technology policymaking capacity of the White House must be enhanced so that the next president can better address key issues facing the nation—from energy and the environment, to national security, and the ability of the United States to compete and collaborate internationally.

"The next president's ability to meet key challenges facing the nation will depend upon a high-quality team in the White House to evaluate and shape the government's approximately $142 billion (2008) investments in Science and Technology as well as the broader S&T underpinnings of complex national and international issues," said Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which on June 17 released the report Critical Upgrade: Enhanced Capacity for White House Science and Technology Policymaking.

"The President will need to appoint an extraordinary individual with the breadth of knowledge and sound judgment to chart advice on matters of sweeping national importance," added David Abshire, president of both the Center for the Study of the Presidency and the Lounsbery Foundation, the latter of which was a sponsor of Critical Upgrade. Dr. Abshire emphasized that "to be effective the science advisor must have ready access to, and the total trust of, the President in order to be fully involved in cabinet-level policymaking." In addition to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Lounsbery Foundation, this study was supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Golden Family Foundation.

"Innovation will be the single most important factor in determining America's success through the 21st century," stated Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness. She added that "the President's science advisor should play a pivotal role in setting priorities for funding frontier research and for fostering a vibrant environment for technology-based entrepreneurship in the United States. The next president will want to strengthen the Office of Science and Technology Policy and quickly select an outstanding leader who will mobilize the cooperation of leaders throughout the public and private sectors."

Critical Upgrade offers recommendations designed to ensure the OSTP has the capacity to help define and implement the President's programs. The analysis benefited from the result of more than 60 interviews, comments, and meetings with many of the nation's top science policymakers, including all living former presidential Science Advisors.

The report's recommendations focus on lessons learned from the past as well as suggestions for the future regarding "best practices" in ten major areas. The points include responsibilities and activities of OSTP, relations with other White House entities, external science advice, coordination of programs across the federal government, programs of international scope, and interactions with the private sector and the states.

Although the position of Special Assistant for Science and Technology had existed since the Eisenhower administration, President Gerald Ford worked with the Congress to establish OSTP officially in the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 (Public Law 94-282). The Act provides OSTP with a broad mandate to advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The 1976 Act also authorizes OSTP to lead interagency efforts to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets, and to work with the private sector, state and local governments, the science and higher education communities, and other nations toward this end.

Over the past fifty years, the President's Assistant for Science and Technology and OSTP fostered the development of policies that proved to be of great benefit to the nation and the world. Policies formulated in the White House science office helped to put a man on the moon, encouraged private sector innovation that has become a major driver of the U.S. economy, and ensured the federal funding that made U.S. academic institutions global leaders. The authors hope that this report will lead to an even more effective and upgraded OSTP that can assist the President and the nation.

The four authors of the report are Jennifer Bond and Mark Schaefer, both consultants to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Rodney Nichols, president and CEO emeritus, New York Academy of Sciences; and David Rejeski, director of the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Experts & Staff

  • David Rejeski // Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program; Interim Director, Commons Lab
  • Todd Kuiken, Ph.D. // Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program
  • Aaron Lovell // Writer/Editor/Program Manager, Science and Technology Innovation Program
  • Eleonore Pauwels // Program Associate/Researcher, Science and Technology Innovation Program
  • Anne Bowser // Researcher, Data Science and Visualization, Science and Technology Innovation Program
  • Elizabeth Tyson // New Projects/Technology Scout, Science and Technology Innovation Program
  • Sharon Weinberger // Global Fellow
  • Piers Millett // Global Fellow
  • Mark Schaefer // Global Fellow