Science, more than many fields, feeds on a collaborative spirit. Former staffers from President Barack Obama’s science office have taken this to heart: They are fanning out, finding jobs in academia, at nonprofits and elsewhere, but they continue to work together, largely behind the scenes. This science diaspora, as one former staffer called it, is ready to both 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 door to the White House and is part of the executive branch. Its director — John Holdren under Obama but currently among the unfilled positions in the current 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, though 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.”
After Donald Trump’s election, though, it quickly became clear that science would not have such a prominent seat at the table after the self-proclaimed nerd left office. OSTP staffers decided to form a sort of 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 currently on staff.)
“We can’t walk across the hall to each other anymore,” said Kei Koizumi, who was a senior adviser on research and development budgeting at OSTP and is now a visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “The team may have moved on, but we still think of ourselves as a team.”
The former staffers aim to push forward on STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education initiatives, on specific research programs, on clean energy and climate 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. His focus was on technology innovation and STEM education initiatives, and that portion of the new defense team now encompasses as many as 50 people spread out across the country. “That’s a very tight-knit group where I can call somebody and they can drop what they’re doing and help.”
The fire drills may involve helping out on Capitol Hill when congressional staffers need input on science-related policy issues, connecting experts with the government office or an NGO that needs them, or, importantly in the coming weeks and months, working on responses to the president’s and congressional budget requests.
Many former staffers said the budgeting battle is a primary focus. The White House released a preliminary budget 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, which contributes enormously to our understanding of climate change, would lose four entire missions and more than $100 million. (Budget director Mick Mulvaney called all climate change spending “a waste of your money.”) 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 (ARPA-E) would disappear entirely, and on down the line.
Now that these battles are taking shape, one former OSTP staffer 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.”
Some 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.”
The OSTPers would have stayed in touch and collaborated regardless of who won in November, but the specifics are certainly different than anticipated. “There were some things that the administration said specifically about scaling back certain policies that made people more alarmed,” said Thomas Kalil, who served as OSTP’s deputy director for technology and innovation for the full eight years of Obama’s presidency and has now moved back to the San Francisco Bay area. Instead of simply passing on their knowledge to a new administration that would likely have treated scientific issues similarly, staffers instead began to focus on playing defense.
Garg agreed that the early days of the Trump administration have provided a host of issues that have galvanized the diaspora. Budgeting for research and development may be chief among them, but others such as making sure science isn’t muzzled, and discussions about scientific integrity, have similarly energized the group — topics that some staffers argue wouldn’t even be on the table if the election had turned out differently. 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 will take place on April 22 in Washington, and in other cities around the country, and has the support of major organizations including AAAS, the American Geophysical Union, the Society for Neuroscience and many others. Kristen Gunther, the March’s mission strategy leader, said the OSTPers have been “incredible resources” in planning and organizing, and in particular in forming those 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.
Of course, there are limits to what people on the outside looking in can accomplish, but some say that they’re also hearing from people on the inside looking for help. People now involved with some of the specific projects started under Obama and Holdren — the BRAIN Initiative, say, or the Computer Science for All initiative — are now looking to former OSTPers for guidance on how to maintain those projects in uncertain waters.
“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, so it isn’t surprising that his staffers at the center of that effort feel a sense of mission that carries beyond the White House gates. And now, with the Trump administration’s assault on science taking form, that mission is rapidly increasing in scope and magnitude.
“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.”
Dave Levitan is a science journalist, and author of “Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science.” Follow him on Twitter at @davelevitan.