I had the pleasure of meeting Prabhakar during the Clinton administration, when she was director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology and I was director of the National Science Foundation. In 1998, President Bill Clinton chose me as his… Director of OSTP and Assistant to the President for Science and Technologya position I held until the end of the government in 2001.
These positions with the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science Technology and Policy gave me different perspectives on how the federal government fulfills its multiple complicated roles in support of science and technology, as well as an idea of some of the challenges Prabhakar faces. By focusing on cooperation between federal agencies and the White House offices in achieving the president’s goals, she can help the American science and technology company overcome the many difficulties facing the country today. .
Eyes on innovation
Born in India, Prabhakar immigrated to the US in the 1960s, holds a PhD in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology, and has had distinguished careers in both government and industry. She has held leadership positions at several technology and venture capital firms. Her most recent federal appointment was as director of the Defense Advanced Project Agencyor DARPA, under Barack Obama.
Today, the US faces a number of existential challenges, ranging from climate change to future pandemics, to… competition from China, to social inequality – all of which require the power of science, technology and innovation. In Testimony of the Senate of Prabhakar, she described how the OSTP is the only place in the federal government that focuses on the overall health and global status of America’s scientific and technological capabilities. The full spectrum of exploration, discovery and implementation is under its purview – from very basic, fundamental research to the commercialization of technological innovations.
Biden shares this believe in the vital role of science and innovationjust like Congress. The recently passed bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act promotes general research and development and production capacity of semiconductorsspecifically in response to the rapid rise of Chinese science, technology and innovation.
Collaboration is crucial
No US executive department or agency alone can achieve the goals of the president. The American system is extremely complicated; a large number of agencies support research and development, as well as science and technology applications. For example, many departments and agencies were instrumental in developing and launching the Internet, which many people take for granted today.
Science agencies partner with dozens of White House offices. OSTP must work well with all these White House agencies and offices, a place where effectiveness depends on striking a balance between assertiveness and cooperation with other players.
A major challenge for Prabhakar – and an issue that concerns many leaders in science and technology – will be assisting and coordinating the efforts of many research firms to achieve national goals, while fulfilling their traditional role in supporting fundamental research in science and technology. This requires earning the trust and respect of the heads of the various agencies and her colleagues in the White House and making sure her voice is heard to achieve the goals set forth by the president and Congress.
Balancing fundamental research with applications
I fully agree with Prabhakar that the US could greatly benefit from investing in both basic research and technological development, but there will inevitably be trade-offs within that broad scope of federal responsibilities.
There is growing concern within the research community that, given Congress and the Biden administration’s recent focus on: innovation and the translation of scientific discoveries to real-world applications, fundamental research is in danger of losing support. Many are concerned that this could be harm the long-standing supremacy of the United States in science.
Prabhakar has devoted her career to creating solutions based on the scientific advances resulting from basic research in universities, national laboratories and in industry. She is well aware that good judgment, teamwork and a degree of assertiveness will be needed to advance the president’s research, development and innovation initiatives and ensure that policymakers do not neglect basic research.
How to be effective?
With so many involved players, collaboration is key.
As OSTP director, Prabhakar is tasked with facilitating effective collaboration among the many federal scientific, health and regulatory agencies. Collaboration between federal agencies and companies, especially in new technologies, is critical to accelerating the pace of translation from discoveries to applications, but that has always been difficult to manage.
The OSTP director can also play an important role in facilitating industry-government relations, and there is currently both commitment and substantial funding from both sides to support this goal. The CHIPS and Science Act calls on the government to invest $10 billion to build 20 new “regional technology and innovation hubs” in locations that are not currently a technology center. I believe Prabhakar’s experience in DARPA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the private sector will enable her to deftly foster cooperation.
Another very important challenge that every OSTP director faces is helping drawing up the annual budget request. The budget consists of thousands of budget lines for the spending of the executive services and agencies. While the Office of Management and Budget plays a key role in this process, the OSTP director is expected to work with the director of the OMB and many other White House advisers to ensure the president’s science and technology priorities are addressed .
Since the President’s initiatives will involve many federal agencies, it will be particularly challenging to gather all the necessary information for the budget and will require significant inter-agency collaboration. It is critical that Prabhakar develop a close working relationship with the OMB to ensure the agencies get what they need.
The US faces huge challenges — from pandemics to climate change to competition with China — all of which require massive national science and technology efforts. Arati Prabhakar has devoted her career to advancing American innovation and competitiveness in science and technology. I think she will do great in her new role. A final quality she brings to the table is the fact that as an immigrant she sets an example for the thousands women and men who come to the US to study science, engineering and technology. It is vital that the US remains a magnet for talent from around the world.
Neal Lane is Professor Emeritus of Science and Technology Policy and Physics and Astronomy at Rice University.