Science

The U.S. Needs a Federal Department of Science and Technology


The failure of the CDC to produce reliable COVID testing kits in a timely fashion, the slow and ineffective rollout of the COVID vaccine, and the Russian cyberattack on government agencies (in spite of multiple GAO reports warning of the risks of just such an attack). All of these seemingly unrelated events reflect the central failure of federal, science-focused agencies to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Just as the attacks of 9/11 revealed the organizational weakness of scattering multiple intelligence agencies across the federal government (and resulted in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security), so too must recent events, indicative of lagging U.S. scientific policy implementation capabilities, generate a discussion about better organization for U.S. scientific policy efforts.

The federal government is structured in various organizational tiers. These include large cabinet-level departments with broad scope such as the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Department of Commerce (DOC). Within these departments are bureaus and agencies, which have more specialized roles, such as the FAA within the Department of Transportation and the FDA within DHHS. Agencies have their authority outlined in law, while bureaus are parts of departments and derive their mandates from the statutory authority of the larger department. Some agencies, such as NASA and the EPA are independent agencies, meaning they are not part of larger Cabinet-level departments.

This complex (and arguably bewildering) structure leads to a fundamental organizational contradiction in the implementation of science policy in the federal government. The broad dispersion of science-focused bureaus and agencies across the government demonstrates their essential contribution to a wide variety of government functions and initiatives. But their distribution across multiple organizational tiers often makes their functions peripheral to the core interests of the larger organizations in which they exist, and therefore less effective.

President Biden has taken the first steps in elevating the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to Cabinet level and creating the position of chief science officer in many federal agencies. The next step should be elevating OSTP into a new Department of Science and Technology (DST) that would bring together bureaus and agencies with a scientific mission from across the government into a single Cabinet-level department, laser-focused on making U.S. scientific efforts more effective. Just as existing dedicated Cabinet departments reflect the focus and priorities of the federal government, with new departments reflecting new priorities (e.g., Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Department of Education), so too would the creation of a DST reflect the federal government’s awareness of the fundamental importance of science and technology to the physical and economic security of our nation.

The new DST would foster a department-wide culture of respect for scientific inquiry and honest, unfettered discussion. A new Life Sciences Bureau within DST would include highly respected bureaus and agencies such as the NIH, CDC and FDA, but also smaller agencies such as the Agricultural Research (Department of Agriculture) and Fish and Wildlife Services (Department of Interior, or DOI), adding to its broad life sciences mission. A Climate and Environmental Sciences bureau within DST would incorporate the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey (DOI) and NOAA (DOC). An engineering and physical sciences bureau would include NASA (independent agency), DARPA (Department of Defense), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (DOC), National Transportation Safety Board (independent agency), FAA and the multiple national laboratories (Department of Energy). The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (DOC), with its broad scientific and engineering mission would, perhaps, sit in the Office of the DST Secretary, collaborating across all of the bureaus as its work required. Space limitations do not allow an extensive listing but, to cite just one example, the advantages of putting NASA in closer organizational proximity to the NIH as it seeks to develop crewed moon bases and a human mission to Mars seems readily apparent.

“Form must follow function” is a truism in architecture. Homes and workplaces must be designed to improve the ability of their occupants to efficiently complete their tasks at the highest levels. Human organizations such as governments adhere to similar rules. Although nothing currently prevents science-focused bureaus and agencies in different departments from communicating and collaborating, the placement of a government organization in the larger structure affects its mission and vision, resources and effectiveness. Just as the placement of agencies such as NOAA and NIST in the DOC reflected the 19th-century priorities of weather and measurement on trade and commerce, so too the priorities of the 21st century must reflect the overarching role of science and technology in our daily lives, the speed at which this new knowledge is driving change (and risk) and its importance to our health, wealth and national security.

Beyond the organizational synergies involved, scientific research and policy must be free of the political interference that has plagued them for years. We have witnessed—during the COVID pandemic, the denial of climate change and multiple previous examples—the deleterious effect of politics on science. Although our elected representatives must have a strong voice in setting the broad priorities and boundaries of federal departments and agencies, for science-focused government organizations to be trusted and effective requires that they continually seek the truth wherever it leads, with downstream policy makers tasked with the political and policy implications of their conclusions. A respected DST, bringing multiple science-focused government organizations under its protective wing, and funded with multiyear appropriations to limit political interference, may be the solution that our country needs to once again achieve scientific preeminence in both research and policy implementation.

There would be both organizational challenges and political and bureaucratic considerations involved in creating the new DST. On the organizational side, large bureaus and agencies with broad missions such as the FDA may not all neatly fit into the DST box because of their broad mandates in research, policy and regulation. For these agencies, there would be three options: (1) leave them in their current department; (2) move them to the new DST, acknowledging the important science regulatory and policy role that the new department will have; or (3) divide the agencies into policy, regulatory and research roles, leaving the policy and regulatory components in the legacy departments. These decisions would have to be made on a case-by-case basis. And surely, in addition to the long-term benefits, any governmental reorganization of this scope would bring short-term confusion, as do all reorganizations.

On the political and bureaucratic fronts, powerful departments like DHHS would undoubtedly seek to keep prestigious organizations like the NIH, CDC and FDA within their domain, and Senate and House committees of jurisdiction would be expected to battle to preserve their turf. Congress as a whole might push back against any infringement on its ability to micromanage science through its annual departmental and agency-level budgeting process. But the fight would be well worth having to create a powerful Cabinet department that brings focus and resources to the pursuit of scientific excellence. Such a science-focused department would also be a more powerful voice in advocating for the importance of science funding in the government budgeting process.

In government, such major changes begin with small steps, and it would be wise to commission the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to carry out a study of the merits and mechanics of creating the DST. Rearranging the existing science-focused bureaus and agencies into a DST would not bring immediate results, but would produce lasting benefits over time. It would constitute the federal government’s acknowledgement of the fundamental role of scientific excellence in both research and policy implementation, unfettered by political interference and threats of politically motivated budget cuts. A new DST is a goal worthy of an American 21st century.

This is an opinion and analysis article.


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