OSTP’s role expanding under new law

The White House agency will help coordinate the process around prize competitions, science and technology education efforts and online access to government data...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy’s workload continues to increase.

On the heels of the America Competes Act becoming law, which details new responsibilities for the OSTP, President Obama Tuesday night gave the office several new chores in his State of the Union address.

The President laid out plans to invest in technology, alternative fuels, science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, and high-speed Internet access for more citizens.

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” Obama said. “By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

And Obama wants to create a website listing specifics about how agencies are spending tax dollars.

Many of these goals will fall to OSTP to act as the convener and coordinator of public and private sector experts.

Obama is building upon the role OSTP has been playing over the last year around everything from broadband access to health information technology. The President’s mandates also come on the heels of him signing the America Competes Act into law on Jan. 4. The legislation details new responsibilities for OSTP as well as the National Institute of Standards, the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department.

“The bill authorizes sustained increases in the government’s science agencies, including Energy, NSF, and NIST,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at OSTP in an interview with Federal News Radio. “These investments are critical for a couple of reasons. First, they create a foundation for industries and jobs in the future. Second, they improve our ability to compete and win in the global marketplace.”

Kalil warned that the bill just authorizes the spending on programs, and Congress still needs to appropriate funding. But he’s confident they will as the law received bi-partisan support.

America Competes, however, does include several policy requirements for all of these agencies, especially OSTP.

Kalil said one of the bigger policy issues is authorizing all agencies to offer prizes for competitions. Previously, he said only a few agencies, such as NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could hold competitions and award cash prizes to the winners.

The Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and OSTP set up a site for governmentwide challengeschallenge.gov.

“The provision lets the government pick a goal and capture the public’s imagination,” Kalil said. “It also brings in non-traditional government contractors. The difference between traditional contracts and grants is the government only pays if the challenge is successful. The legislation authorizes prizes up to $50 million. It can support larger than that, but the agency must write to Congress to get it approved.”

Kalil said OSTP has been leading a community of practice around prizes and competitions, and will continue to help agencies as more and more begin using them. Currently there are 63 challenges from 27 organizations listed on Challenge.gov.

The law also requires OSTP to play a larger role in making scientific and technical data more accessible to the public.

Kalil said Congress in the omnibus spending bill for 2008 required the National Institutes of Health to publish data on a portal, PubMed. He said 420,000 people have logged on with two-thirds coming from outside NIH.

The legislation wants OSTP to play a lead role in expanding this concept to other scientific and technical agencies.

“We should be looking for new ways to allow broad access that is consistent with the administration’s open government strategy,” Kalil said. “The legislation directed agencies to make more information available in machine readable format for bulk download. It will allow all sorts of outside individuals and developers to create value added services; the idea of government as a platform.”

OSTP will help coordinate the policy development around making data accessible through a centralized portal, similar to what NIH is doing.

“OSTP plays critical role in convening agencies and helping to develop shared visions the federal government is trying to achieve,” Kalil said.

Kalil said the America Competes law also focuses on science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM), and how the government coordinates grants and other ways to promote more students going in these fields.

“OSTP will play a role in better coordination of STEM investments across the government,” he said. “There are many different programs and Congress wants to make sure we have strong coordination so there is no duplication, and make sure the federal agencies have clear goals for the programs. OSTP also will make sure there is a process in place to evaluate programs effectiveness.”

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