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The Biden-administration’s New Science and Technology Policy

By Mark Knell, Research Professor, NIFU and Per Koch, Forskningspolitikk

President Joseph Biden has announced a return to a more traditional American research and innovation policy.

STI policy under Trump

Former president Trump appeared to have little respect for science, technology, and innovation (STI) policy. Vacant positions and dubious Cabinet appointments and his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 crisis support this view.

There is a long tradition in politics for cherry picking supportive scientific findings and ignoring science that weakens their own position. Still, Trump took this to a new level.

He received strong criticism for ignoring science on important topics like climate change and the pandemic, for requiring state departments and organizations to remove references to such science in documents and for making up his own science on the go. Trump saw every narrative as a political narrative, expecting scientists to support his version of reality, regardless of what the real science said.

His lack of interest in traditional science policy appeared obvious in the way he kept the post as science adviser to the President vacant for two years. In 2018 Trump did eventually nominate Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the Senate did confirm him in January 2019. However, it does not seem that he had much of an influence on Trump.

That being said, The Trump administration did restructure The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) by introducing new committees on artificial intelligence, research environments and science and technology enterprise.

Jeffrey Mervis has noticed[1] that funding for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health rose more than twice as much under Trump as in the Obama years. Research on artificial intelligence (AI) and in quantum information rose even faster.

Click here for an overview of, and a map over, the main federal science, technology and innovation policy actors in the US.

What institutional arrangements can we expect in 2021?

The Biden administration is making a sharp turn away from the policies of the Trump administration.

The most important key change may be that Biden has elevated the OSTP director/presidential science adviser to the cabinet level, as a kind of minister without portfolio. The OSTP Director co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and supports the Cabinet-level NSTC, which Biden chairs.

Biden has nominated Eric Lander as director of the OSTP. Lander is a mathematician and geneticist who helped map the human genome as well as the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Alondra Nelson is to become deputy science policy chief. She a professor of science, technology, and social inequality at Princeton.  Kei Koizumi has been appointed OSTP chief of staff. He has a background from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as well as the OSTP and the NSTC.

These appointments reflect a broad approach to the use of science and technology, Lander standing for the “hard” sciences, Nelson reflecting the critical science and technology studies approach, while Koizumi brings in a lot of experience from practical research and innovation policy making.


Each administration charters (or recharters) the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) with a broad mandate to advise the President on STI policy and related issues

Biden has appointed Maria Zuber (E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Frances Arnold (Nobel Laureate and Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology) as co-chairs of PCAST.

These science advisors may appoint someone to be the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. PCAST will have up to 26 advisors.[2]

The Endless Frontier Act

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is leading the work on the bipartisan Endless Frontier Act.[3]  The name refers to the science policy report of Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt’s science adviser, Science the Endless Frontier, which presented a post-World War II vision for the role of science back in 1945.[4]  

Schumer is clearly driven by the fear of the US lagging behind China in areas like semiconductors, AI and biomedical research.

The idea is to turn the NSF into a National Science and Technology Foundation, increasing the funding significantly in the process. This is a traditional “technology push” bill targeting various “key technology focus areas.” The additional funds will go to university led centres and consortia. There is no sign of an EU like “third generation innovation policy” approach with missions targeting UN Development Goals here.

What kinds of STI policy can we expect from Biden?

In a letter Eric Lander dated 15 January 2021.[5] President Biden also refers to Science the Endless Frontier. He clearly wants a new report of a similar kind.

Biden argues that it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate the national science and technology strategy to set the US on a strong course for the next 75 years: “… so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.”

Biden asks Lander for recommendations on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt and poses five big questions:  1) What can we learn from the pandemic related to our public health?; 2) How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions?; 3) How can the US ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future?; 4) How can we share the fruits of science and technology; and 5) How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology?

The letter reflects a strong belief in the ability of science to provide the world with solutions to all its problems. Is does not to the same extent problematize the role of science in society.  That being said, Biden’s letter does reflect on the uneven distribution of the benefits of science and technology across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines. “How can we ensure that Americans of all backgrounds are drawn into both the creation and the rewards of science and technology?” he asks.

Alondra Nelson, his new deputy science adviser, has said that “science at its core is a social phenomenon, a reflection of the people”. She argues that the way we build AI algorithms, provide health care, are “human choices. It matters who makes these choice.”  She has pointed out that as a black woman researcher, she is “keenly aware of who is missing” from such decisions at present.[6]

On political interference

President Joe Biden is also addressing the way science has become part of the political battlegrounds of America. He has created a task force of the NSTC that is to conduct a 120-day review of scientific integrity policies across the U.S. government. The task force has been asked to look at instances in which “improper political interference” has interfered with research or led to the suppression or distortion of data.

The headline, “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking”, implies a clear critique of Trump’s practices. The document underlines that “Scientific findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations”.[7]


President Biden is fulfilling his promise to accelerate R&D investments, creating a new Climate Innovation Working Group as part of the National Climate Task Force to advance his commitment to launching an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C).

The US has re-joined the Paris climate accord. Moreover, Biden has affirmed the Trump administration’s ambitious plans for sending people back to the moon.

See also: An overview of the American federal STI policy system.

[1] doi:10.1126/science.abf1919

[2] Memorandum of January 27, 2021, Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking


[4] See Magnus Gulbrandsen’s article in Forskningspolitikk




Main photo Biden and Harris from Biden For President, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0