Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

In his first major speech since being sworn in, the leading scientist in the Trump administration emphasized the growing importance of private companies in basic research and downplayed the importance of the government’s investment in science.

White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier took the stage at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to describe his vision of the nation’s research ecosystem as one that has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, when the government made a major push to fund basic scientific research.

Droegemeier stopped short of specific recommendations on what should happen to the government’s investment in science, but the emphasis on other sources of funding and innovation was noticeable in an address to an auditorium full of scientists who often depend on federal funding to run their laboratories.

“In fact, in 2015, for the first time in the history of this country, the private sector funded more basic research than did the federal government. Now, that didn’t happen because the federal government stopped funding basic research, but it happened because American companies have the freedom to be creative and to invest and to explore new ideas,” Droegemeier said.

Droegemeier gave a list of statistics illustrating how much basic research is now being done by private companies or funded by nonprofit groups, and he called for a “second bold era of America’s endless frontier in science and technology” that reflects how the nation’s research portfolio has shifted. In 1957, only the government could have responded to the threat of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, that launched the Space Age and triggered an investment that cemented American scientific, military and technological dominance for decades. But today, a private company — perhaps even a start-up — could play that role, Droegemeier argued.

Instead of launching a new federal research initiative, Droegemeier described a potential throwback to the blue-sky industrial research labs of the past run by giant companies, such as Bell Laboratories. He called for “alpha institutes” that could be located at colleges and universities and funded primarily by companies and nonprofit foundations.

Alpha institutes “could serve as a scientific crucible of exceptional faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers — from industry, from academia, from government — to pursue absolutely transformational ideas on the biggest challenges that face humanity today, like space exploration, climate change, eradicating disease and making it possible for people to live longer and healthier lives,” he said. Many companies and foundations already invest in research institutes.

The scientific community took heart when the Trump administration finally filled a gaping hole, appointing Droegemeier, a respected meteorologist and extreme-weather expert, to serve as his top science and technology adviser after the position remained vacant for nearly two years. Rush Holt, chief executive of the AAAS, welcomed Droegemeier to give his first major speech since being officially sworn in, and Holt listed hopes that scientists had.

“I think we hope and expect he will be able to clearly communicate the accepted and understood evidence on climate science, that human activity is changing the climate, and it is costly in lives and dollars, and action is required,” Holt said. “That funding for science from the federal government is suboptimal. …. The administration should understand, and we hope that Dr. Droegemeier will help them understand, the funding is suboptimal; this is no time to reduce federal funding for research.”

After his remarks, Droegemeier quickly left the stage without taking questions.

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