Staying ahead of the storm

Staying ahead of the storm
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE’s top science adviser loves storms but has little appetite for the partisan tempest engulfing Washington.

Kelvin Droegemeier, a former meteorologist and academic, was confirmed early this year to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House and is at the forefront of the federal government’s work on everything from quantum computing to artificial intelligence (AI) to space policy.

Droegemeier, 61, came into the position with a wealth of experience, and his nomination was a welcome development among the scientific community after the role sat vacant since the start of Trump’s administration.

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“My ultimate, über-priority is to make sure that America leads the world in science and technology,” Droegemeier said in a recent interview in his office.

He worked at the University of Oklahoma for three decades, eventually serving as the vice president for research and regents’ professor of meteorology after spending his undergraduate career in the 1970s chasing tornadoes, using 16mm movie cameras to help track the debris and generate data.  

“It would give you a sense of what the wind speeds of the tornadoes that passed were,” he recalled.

Droegemeier counts among his accomplishments co-founding the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, which uses computer modeling to predict impending severe local weather.

Before coming to Washington, he had testified before Congress and served on the National Science Board for two six-year terms under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: 'Voting by mail shouldn't be a partisan issue' How cable TV and sensationalized crime reporting led to 'cancel culture' Judge again blocks US from resuming federal executions MORE.

His nomination was advanced unanimously by the Senate Commerce Committee, and he was confirmed by a voice vote in the full Senate in early January.

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Droegemeier says the political divide that has reached a fever pitch amid the impeachment inquiry into Trump hasn’t harmed his relationships with lawmakers across the political aisle.

“To me, science knows no political boundaries, no geopolitical boundaries, anything like that. Science is science,” he said. “I try to draw people together to solve problems. It doesn’t matter what your political party is.”

His portfolio at the White House is expansive. Droegemeier is responsible for coordinating and executing science and technology policy across the entire federal government, work that crosses numerous agencies and departments and a variety of subject matter.

“We have about 90 different actual work-stream activities, from harmful algal blooms to space weather to nuclear space launch policy to marine debris, you name it,” he said. “We do a lot of work.”

Droegemeier said he’s focused foremost on improving U.S. research environments. That includes, for instance, reducing sexual harassment and discrimination and ensuring researchers receiving federal grants aren’t subject to burdens that bog down their work, such as excessive administrative activities.

Droegemeier also described a threat of foreign government influence on research — when a person who receives federal funding for research knowingly does not disclose an affiliation with another government. His office is working to address these concerns through the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, which was established months after he came to the Trump administration.

Droegemeier also counts among his top priorities work on “industries of the future,” an umbrella that encompasses the fifth-generation mobile network (5G), AI, quantum computing, advanced manufacturing and other areas.

“I think the main thing for us is, No. 1, making sure our principles lead the world ... in terms of things like AI,” he said.

“Another thing is making sure that our [research and development] system is as strong as it can be. We need to play very strong offense,” he continued. “I’m from a football school; you don’t win football games by having a strong defense.”

Droegemeier said Trump is deeply interested in the office’s work, particularly 5G and efforts to bring broadband capabilities to rural America. The OSTP is also in charge of research and development for Trump’s initiative to end veteran suicide.

“I like the president. He is a very smart guy. He asks tough questions, so when you go to meet with him, you need to have your game face on,” Droegemeier said. “He’s really empowered us as OSTP, as other components in the White House, as federal agencies, to really go out and do transformative things.”

But Trump has been no stranger to science-related controversies, withstanding ongoing criticism for his skepticism about man-made climate change and his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

Earlier this year, Trump displayed a map in the Oval Office that appeared to have been altered to show the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian including Alabama, days after he said erroneously that the storm was expected to hit the state.

Asked about the hurricane map controversy, Droegemeier said he believed the issue was “blown way out of proportion.”

“I think the main thing in something like that is to make sure that the president gets briefed by those who are the experts in whatever the topic is,” he said.

Life in Washington has been an adjustment. Droegemeier’s biggest personal challenge has been living apart from his wife of 36 years, Lisa, who is still back in Oklahoma.

He has also been forced to navigate a large government bureaucracy and finds some difficulty keeping track of what any one component is working on at a given time — something that was easy in his previous field, where he could attend conferences to understand what colleagues were pursuing.

“Just knowing what people are doing is a challenge because there is so much that is going on, and it is really wonderful work, but it’s really different than a research kind of a culture,” he said.

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Droegemeier appears enthusiastic about his role; he has a sunny disposition and described a sense of awe he brings to work at the White House every day.

In a sign of his enduring fascination with inclement weather, colleagues at the White House say he often calls them to the window when a storm hits D.C.

“As a professor, one of my top-line goals was just helping students achieve their goals and dreams in life,” Droegemeier said. “This is that on a very great scale and really at the national level.”

“We want the U.S. to be the world leader in science and technology. I wake everyday thinking that, yeah, that is what I am able to help do here along with many, many other people,” he said.