What is OSTP?

And why am I so excited about it?

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As of two weeks ago, my expectations for the Biden administration were not high. Or, perhaps more accurately, my expectations that Joe Biden would actually assume the office of the presidency were not high. When, back at the first presidential debate, now-former President Trump refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, I took his words for the threat that they were. I did trainings for coup prevention and assembled a quick-response team. I allowed myself a brief bit of joy on November 7, when the news networks finally called the election for Biden, then plunged back into a now-familiar swamp of anxiety. And on the afternoon of January 6, when Trump loyalists and far-right extremists stormed the Capitol, I felt the kind of rage that impedes rational thought.

In the midst of all of this, it seemed premature to forecast the possibilities for science policy in the Biden administration. It felt like naming a baby too soon, or like signing a lease on the basis of a promotion that hasn’t actually come through. Maybe more to the point, I struggled to focus on either science policy or the history thereof, with the scale of this country’s dedication to armed white supremacy so starkly on display. (Except for the nuclear codes. I was very worried about the nuclear codes. But let’s move on.)

The Biden team’s transition planning continued apace. And in fact, as is now old news, on 12:01 p.m. EST on January 20, the entire machinery of government passed into new hands without further incident. Of the U.S. government’s estimated 2 million civilian employees, the vast majority are civil servants who stay on across administrations. The federal workforce also includes about 4,000 political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. This category includes everything from Senate-confirmed cabinet positions, to their assistants, to more obscure patronage positions. (Planet Money has a fascinating little piece on how people find out about these jobs.) 

Late on the afternoon of January 20, less than 8 hours into the new administration, Biden swore in nearly 1,000 of these appointees in an oddly moving virtual ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House. Instead of the floral sprays and fine china that name calls to mind, the room was dominated by three large-screen TVs that displayed a rotating array of tiny faces charged with the enormous task of picking up the pieces of all the Trump administration sought to destroy. Though I couldn’t locate her face on the screens, Alondra Nelson was up there somewhere. Nelson, a sociologist of science whose work has focused on race, science, and social inequality, had been appointed Deputy Director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

I’ll admit I gasped when this appointment was first announced. I’ve been a fan of Nelson’s work back from when, as a baby acquisitions editor at Rutgers University Press, I tried to convince her to sign her first book with us. (I was not successful: The book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medial Discrimination, ultimately ended up at Minnesota University Press. It’s great.) But my response was about more than just my admiration for Nelson’s work, or even the little thrill of witnessing something exciting happen to someone you know and like. To my knowledge, over the course of its existence, neither OSTP nor its associated scientific advisory council has ever had a science studies scholar in a senior leadership position. Never, ever. OSTP, the body that sets science policy for the White House and hence the country, has always been led by scientists, rather than by people with formal expertise on the relationship between science and society.

OSTP itself was created in 1976, but most historians of U.S. science point to the 1950s as the formative decade for contemporary science policy in the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most of the U.S. government’s official science policymaking happened either in scientific advisory councils associated with individual agencies or through reports solicited through the National Academy of Sciences. Most branches of the military, for instance, had their own advisory panels, as did the Atomic Energy Commission. In November 1957, in the wake of Sputnik, President Eisenhower elevated the role of the President’s Science Advisor and gave him a new committee, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (aka, PSAC), in an attempt to get a more birds’-eye view of the country’s situation in science.

Populated mostly by chemists and physicists, PSAC and its immediate predecessors focused nearly entirely on security issues. Should the United States develop a hydrogen bomb? What about the problem of surprise attack? What about an antiballistic missile system, or multiple independent reentry vehicle warheads? In my own research, I’ve written about PSAC’s position on the question of human spaceflight and its take on science’s role in the Cold War fight for hearts and minds. I think historian of science Zuoyue Wang gets it right in his authoritative history of PSAC when he describes its primary role during this time as a voice for “technological skepticism” that frequently shut down the military’s expensive, sometimes outlandish dreams for ever-more-spectacular weaponry.

It was that skepticism that brought the first iteration of PSAC to an end in 1973. The very short version of that story is that President Nixon wanted things that PSAC thought were inadvisable, including supersonic transport (think the Concorde). Also: Vietnam. Congress created OSTP as an alternative body to develop and lead interagency science policy in 1976. At least at first, this version had a very 70s focus on innovation, energy, education, and technology transfer. George W. Bush reinstated a version of PSAC, now known as the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST), in 2001. <Correction added 11:57 p.m., 02/02/2021: PCAST was reinstated by George H. W. Bush, not George W. Bush, in March 1990.> The offices are linked by the Director of OSTP, informally known as “the President’s Science Advisor,” who serves as PCAST’s co-chair. While PCAST and OSTP remain important voices in science-based security policy, the focus has shifted to the biological, environmental, and earth sciences in the post-Cold War era, with a bigger focus on domestic policy.

President Biden’s choice for OSTP Director, geneticist Eric Lander, culminates this shift toward the biological sciences. Lander co-chaired Obama’s OSTP, so he’s a familiar face in DC science policy circles. But Biden has also made an important change by promoting the Director of OSTP to a cabinet-level position. The move makes sense, given Biden’s frequent campaign statements on theme of “Listen to the scientists.” The question has always been, What, precisely, does “Listen to the scientists” mean now that the consensus viewpoint is that science is inherently political?

I read Nelson’s appointment as a signal that “Listen to the scientists” means a version of science policy that ranks the public’s interests at least as high as scientists’. Here’s what she had to say about it at the official announcement of Biden’s science policy team:

The entire thing is worth watching, but I was particularly struck by these comments:

 Science, at its core, is a social phenomenon. It is a reflection of our people, our relationships, and our institutions. When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design tests and research, we are making human choices, choices that bring our social world to bear in a new and powerful way. It matters who makes these choices. It matters who they're thinking about when they do.

Biden’s OSTP has an enormous task ahead of it. Less than two weeks in, Biden has signed more than 40 executive orders, many of which deal directly or indirectly with science policy. I can’t begin do to them justice here; as always, the UCS has a good analysis of the obscure-yet-meaningful provisions for science policy. One of the most sweeping, “Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking,” requires the OSTP Director to convene a task force to conduct a government-wide assessment of the country’s scientific integrity policies. There’s more, too, but this newsletter is already long enough—so here’s a little thread previewing some of my thoughts on it.


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Speaking of federal science projects: Historians have been waiting a long time for a new political history of Apollo, and we finally have one: Teasel Muir Harmony’s Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo. Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, rightly tells the story of Apollo as a key episode in the history of public diplomacy.

Speaking of NASA: Later this year, NASA plans to launch a new telescope, the JWST, named after former NASA Administrator James (Jim) Webb. Last week, tensions flared over the question of whether Webb truly deserves this honor. Webb’s accomplishments as a NASA administrator are not in dispute, but queer scientists have demanded a name change given Webb’s role as Undersecretary of State at the beginning of the Lavender Scare, a period when officials attempted to purge gay workers from the federal workforce (especially the State Department). For a deep dive into the issue, including a compelling case against Webb, see Lucianne Walkowicz’s excellent newsletter on the topic, “The Straights Are Here to Save Us.”

Speaking neither of NASA nor federal science: Do you enjoy clever shows about clever thieves? Try Netflix’s Lupin.