OSTP Director Testifies Before House Appropriators

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Publication date: 
16 May 2011

John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, testified earlier this month for about three hours before the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Holdren was the sole witness, and he was questioned on topics ranging from the use of a Blackberry during his trips to China, scientific cooperation with China, STEM education, NASA, the development of rare earth elements, and duplication in NSF, NASA and NOAA programs.  Among the topics covered:

FY 2012 Appropriations Outlook:

Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA), Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA), and John Culberson (R-TX) were on the same page regarding the importance of federal support for science and technology.  “The Administration and the Congress are in broad agreement about the need for significant investments in science and technology programs next year,” declared Wolf, although  there might be differences in how this money should be spent.  Fattah spoke of significant investments that countries like China and Singapore are making in science, and praised the Obama Administration and Wolf for their efforts in science, technology, and innovation.  At the conclusion of the hearing Culberson, a strong fiscal conservative, stated “the scientific community has no better friends in Congress than Chairman Wolf or this committee.”  He added, “We have philosophical disagreements in certain areas, obviously.  But we are arm-in arm in our commitment to support, to firewall, our investment in the basic sciences.  And to preserve and protect America’s leadership in the world requires a very strong investment by the federal government in fundamental scientific research.”   

Budget Doubling:

Citing the recommendations in the “Gathering Storm” reports and the provisions of the America COMPETES Act, Wolf wanted to know the degree to which the budgets for NSF, NIST, and the DOE Office of Science were on a doubling track.  Holdren replied that “we’re certainly not there” in the final FY 2011 appropriations act, and told Wolf “the only way we could get back on track on those trajectories would be if the president’s FY 2012 budget [requests] were approved by the Congress.”  Wolf responded that the funding levels in his bill will depend on the subcommittee’s funding allocation.


Many minutes were spent during this hearing discussing China.  Wolf is very distrustful of China, and Culberson spoke of its goal “to make the 21st century the Chinese century.”  There was much discussion about how the Administration interprets a provision in the FY 2011 appropriations act that states: “None of the funds made available by this division may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactment of this division.”

Wolf and Culberson asked Holdren many questions about what OSTP will and will not do as a result of this provision, citing previous trips Holdren has made to China.  Wolf charged that the Administration was “tone-deaf to the human rights violations and what’s taking place in China,” and spoke at length about various incidents.  Holdren replied that he admired Wolf’s leadership in speaking out about what Holdren called “reprehensible” human rights abuses.  Holdren added, “I would only remind you that when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire he also continued cooperation with the Soviet Union in science and technology that we judged were in the U.S. national interests to cooperate with them on  And we continued to do that not because we were doing a favor to the Soviet Union . . . we did it because it was in our interest.”   Cooperative areas include the prediction and control of epidemics, nuclear reactor safety, alternative energy, emission reductions, space debris, and human exploration of Mars. 

Culberson returned to the topic of Administration’s interpretation of the FY 2011 China provision. He vigorously disagreed with that interpretation, charging that the Administration intends to violate the law.  “You’ve got a huge problem on your hands,” he said, warning “What you just read to me endangers, frankly, your funding, the Office of General Counsel.  I intend to go after all of them in every division of the White House.”  Culberson asked many questions about Holdren taking a Blackberry with him on his visits to China because of what Culberson said were “aggressive attempts by the Chinese to penetrate the U.S. government and private companies with cyber-attacks.”

Maintaining American Leadership in Science and Technology:

Ranking Member Fattah recalled a conversation in which he asked American officials about a smaller country’s significant investment in particular technologies.  Fattah said, “I was told that their leadership had decided that even if they had to eat dirt they were going to lead the world in that particular area.”  When asked by Fattah what the federal government should do to maintain U.S. S&T leadership, Holdren spoke of inspiring more children to go into science, engineering, and mathematics; strengthening research universities, national laboratories and private industry; translating discoveries into applied innovation in the marketplace; and STEM education.

STEM Education:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and the other appropriators asked many questions about what the Administration is doing to better prepare American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Wolf expressed concern about the duplication of federal STEM programs.  Holdren described the work of a National Science and Technology Council STEM committee that is co-chaired by OSTP Associate Director for Science Carl Wieman.  Schiff and Holdren also talked about programs to identify and engage bright students at an early age. 


When asked by Wolf why NASA’s FY 2012 budget request was flat, Holdren replied that the Administration was trying to build the agency back up, but “we are living . . . in an extremely difficult budget time.”  He continued, “unfortunately, at this particular juncture, there’s not enough money.”  Wolf agreed with Holdren, but criticized the FY 2012 request for NASA’s exploration program and characterized the agency’s request as “unacceptable.”  Later, when asked if the NASA Authorization Act’s specifications for the development of a heavy-lift rocket were being followed, Holdren responded that it was “something we are legally obliged to pursue,” adding “I don’t think we can necessarily legislate success. . . we will try to do it.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) also asked about contract modification as it related to the development of a heavy lift rocket. 

Rare Earth Elements:

Culberson asked Holdren about the development of a rare earth mining and processing capability in the United States.  Holdren described an interagency working group on short-term and long-term strategies to minimize U.S. vulnerability, adding that there is a considerable rare earth resource in the United States that requires the development of a supply chain.   

A Final Word:

From Chairman Wolf: “I am committed to doing everything we can with regard to funding the scientists.”

Note that selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call .

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