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Around seven months into its tenure, the Trump Administration has made its first clear articulation of its priorities for federal research and development (R&D) spending. In a four-page memorandum issued by the White House on 17 August 2017, the administration laid out a science and engineering research agenda that put a premium on U.S. defense and security, energy dominance and commercialization potential—and that omitted some significant areas, such as any mention of space science or climate research.

The policy document—coauthored by White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—is intended as a guide for federal agencies to research areas that “should receive special focus” as those agencies shape their requests for spending under the fiscal 2019 federal budget, currently being developed. Yet some observers noted that the memo’s specifics seemed, in a number of cases, to run counter to the priorities expressed in the administration’s 2018 budget proposal, issued a few months ago.

A thoroughly “American” agenda

As is well known, Donald Trump campaigned under the slogan “Make America great again,” and the new science-priorities document has a definite “America first” flavor. The document lists five principal priority areas for federal R&D spending: “American military superiority,” “American security,” “American prosperity,” “American energy dominance,” and “American health.” Beneath those rubrics, the text showed a particular tilt toward defense and security applications such as large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems, border surveillance, counterterrorism, and efforts to “increase the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure from both physical threats and cyber-attacks.”

The document alludes explicitly to a number of areas with potential to drive spending on optics and photonics research. These include, under “American military superiority,” spending foci such as missile defense, autonomous and space-based weapons, and “future computing capabilities,” all of which rest partly on advances in photonic technology. Surveillance and sensing technologies, also driven by photonics, feature prominently in the “American security” section. And, under “American prosperity,” the document makes some surprisingly specific mentions of research on applications such as autonomous systems, biometrics, machine learning, and quantum computing—all research areas with substantial photonics components.

A private-sector emphasis

The themes of these focus areas differ markedly from the priorities laid out by the Obama Administration for its last budget, which focused on global climate change, clean energy, Earth observations, advanced manufacturing, and life science innovation. Beyond its explicit research priorities, however, the 17 August memo more generally makes a notable nod to the private sector, to public-private partnerships, and to emphasizing research with solid prospects for commercialization.

In the “military superiority” category, for example, it notes that the administration encourages “programs with dual-use potential to be leveraged for Federal non-military advancements.” And, under “American prosperity,” the document directs agencies to focus basic research on areas that “have the highest potential to drive the economy and create entirely new industries.” “By providing the fundamental building blocks of new technological advances,” the memo continues, “the Government can empower the private sector to accelerate research discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.”

“Sound science” and “transformative products”

In a passage that its authors saw fit to set in boldface type, the memo stressed that, in weighing potential new research programs, federal agencies “should ensure that the proposed programs are based on sound science, do not duplicate existing R&D efforts, and have the potential to contribute to the public good.” The memo then notes that agencies “should also identify existing R&D programs that could progress more efficiently through private sector R&D, and consider their modification or elimination where Federal involvement is no longer needed or appropriate.”

Perhaps most notably, the memo directed agencies to prioritize “basic and early-stage applied research that, supplemented by private sector financing of later-stage R&D, can result in the development of transformative commercial products and services.”  Strong partnerships with the private sector will be critical to maximizing the efficacy of Federal funding. And the memo warned against “reinventing” private-sector work. “Budget proposals,” it said, “should minimize focus on incremental efforts that are already being explored by industry.”

Mixed signals?

The White House memo also bows predictably to priorities such as “developing a future-focused workforce” through increased expenditures on STEM education; the “tremendous opportunities in new job creation” implicit in emerging technologies; and “modernizing and managing research infrastructure,” in part by reducing waste and duplication.

Yet some observers noted that the priorities laid out in the 17 August memo contrast with the policies put forward by some of the same dramatis personae only a few months ago in the administration’s proposed 2018 budget, still being debated in the U.S. Congress. Matthew Hourihan, a research spending analyst with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., was quoted in a story on the Science magazine web site that the memo’s guidance “doesn’t have a lot of similarities with President Trump’s own 2018 budget request.”