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Monday, April 15, 2013

The President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP): Issues for Congress

John F. Sargent Jr.
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Dana A. Shea
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) through the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 (P.L. 94-282). The act states that “The primary function of the OSTP Director is to provide, within the Executive Office of the President [EOP], advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of issues that require attention at the highest level of Government.” Further, “The Office shall serve as a source of scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the President with respect to major policies, plans, and programs of the Federal Government.”

The President nominates the OSTP Director, and he is subject to confirmation by the Senate. In many Administrations, the President has concurrently appointed the OSTP Director to the position of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Policy (APST), a position which allows for the provision of confidential advice to the President on matters of science and technology. President Obama both appointed John Holdren as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (APST) and nominated him as OSTP Director, a position to which the Senate confirmed him. While Congress can require the OSTP Director to testify, the APST may decline requests to testify on the basis of separation of powers and/or executive privilege. The APST manages the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), an interagency body established by Executive Order 12881 that coordinates science and technology (S&T) policy across the federal government. The APST also co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a council of external advisors established by Executive Order 13539 that provides advice to the President.

In FY2011, Congress sought to restrict OSTP from engaging in certain activities with China or any Chinese-owned company by prohibiting the use of appropriated funds for these activities (P.L. 112-10). The OSTP expended a portion of its FY2011 appropriation to engage in activities with China that Congress sought to proscribe. The Department of Justice and OSTP asserted that this congressional effort infringed upon the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign diplomacy. In contrast, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that OSTP violated the Antideficiency Act, though it did not speak to the constitutional issue. Congress enacted a similar restriction for FY2012 (P.L. 112-55) and FY2013 (P.L. 113-6) and may continue its interest in the debate over its ability to restrict the activities of OSTP.

Among other issues Congress may wish to consider are the need for science advice within the EOP; the title, rank, and responsibilities of the OSTP Director; the policy foci of OSTP; the funding and staffing for OSTP; the roles and functions of OSTP and NSTC in setting federal science and technology policy; and the status and influence of PCAST. Some in the S&T community support raising the OSTP Director to cabinet rank, contending that this would imbue the position with more influence within the EOP. Others have proposed that the OSTP Director play a greater role in federal agency coordination, priority-setting, and budget allocation. Both the Administration and Congress have identified areas of policy focus for OSTP staff, raising questions of policy setting and oversight. Some experts say NSTC has insufficient authority over federal agencies engaged in science and technology activities and PCAST insufficient influence on S&T policy; they question the overall coordination of federal science and technology activities. Finally, some in the scientific community support increasing the authority of the OSTP Director in the budget process so as to more strongly influence federal investment in science.

Date of Report: April 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 47
Order Number: RL34736
Price: $29.95

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