Kei Koizumi Advises the President

In this installment of Science Policy IRL, Kei Koizumi takes us inside the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP. As the principal deputy director for policy at OSTP, Koizumi occupies an unusual position at the very heart of science policy in the United States. OSTP provides science and technology advice to the president and executive office, works with federal agencies and legislators to create S&T policy, and helps strengthen and advance American science and technology. Koizumi talks to Issues editor Lisa Margonelli about what he does at OSTP, how he got there, and the exciting developments in S&T policy that get him out of bed every day. 

Are you involved in science and technology policy? From science for policy to policy for science, from the merely curious to full-on policy wonks, we would love to hear from all of you! Please visit our survey page to share your thoughts and provide a better understanding of who science policy professionals are, what they do, and why—along with a sense of how science policy is changing and what its future looks like.

Kei Koizumi Advises the President

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Transcript

Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academy of Sciences and by Arizona State University.

I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief at Issues. We launched our Science Policy IRL series to explore what science policy is by talking directly to the people who do it. Before we get started on this week’s interview, I’d like to invite you to participate in a survey of all of the people who do science policy, which I think might include you. Our survey has its roots in an old observation. Back in 1968, journalist Dan Greenberg tried to estimate the “remarkably small number of people involved in science policy,” and landed on somewhere between 200 and 1,000 people. That’s a big range, and the world has changed a lot since 1968, but we still don’t have a good idea of who does science policy and what it is that they do, so we’re launching this survey to better understand that, and we would love to hear from listeners like you. Go to issues.org/survey to participate. Now, back to our show.

On this episode, I’m joined by Kei Koizumi, principal deputy director for policy for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, at the White House. Kei has an unusual position in the science policy world, because the OSTP provides science and technology advice to the president, and it also works with federal agencies and legislators to create science and technology policy and to steer the general mission of science. Kei talks to us about what he does at OSTP, how he got there, and the exciting developments in S&T policy that get him out of bed every day.

Kei, welcome.

Kei Koizumi: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here talking to Issues listeners, and your podcast listeners.

Margonelli: You are at an absolutely central place in science policy in the United States, so I’m very excited to ask you some questions, but I’m going to start with the usual ones, which is the very first one that we always ask. How do you define science policy?

It’s our job as all of us—as citizens, as policy scholars, as voters—to try to steer the wonderful things we get from science and technology.

Koizumi: That’s a good question. And it’s actually a question that I ask my students to define when I’m teaching science policy classes, and it’s different for each person. Without giving away the answers that listeners might come up with, what does science policy mean to me breaks out into two categories. First is what I like to call science for policy. That is, scientific information, advice and evidence that is used to make policy decisions in every field imaginable, whether it’s healthcare or national security or economic competitiveness, so on.

The other category is policy for science. Those are the policy decisions that governments make that affect our US science and engineering enterprise, and that is government funding of research and development. That is all the policy that’s around how we do research, and how we make sure that results of that research get translated into impacts that we can all believe in and see. That includes things like human subject research protections, intellectual property policies, or open science and public access policies, to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the results of federally funded research. I could go on, but those are how I think about science policy, and what it comes down to is that policy is any action that an organization can take that has some kind of impact on the world. It’s our job as all of us—as citizens, as policy scholars, as voters—to try to steer the wonderful things we get from science and technology, like new knowledge, new technological options, toward making progress on the things that we all care about.

Margonelli: That’s an interesting and a common breakdown between the science for policy and policy for science. You’ve also said that science policy is a contact sport. What does that mean?

Koizumi: Well, it means that every day in my role here at the White House Office of Science and Technology policy, I have to work with a lot of people and have contact with them, talk to them about where they’re coming from, their hopes and aspirations, their interests. Together, through a lot of contact—and it’s meetings, it is written documents, it is emails, phone calls—we try to get to a policy that not only makes sense, but has the impacts that we’re seeking.

I also say that science policy is a team sport, because if you’re going to have contact with people, you need a lot of people to be on the team. I like that metaphor because in my work—in my office especially—we have, like a sports team, we have lots of different positions and skills. I’m surrounded by physicists, life scientists, astronomers, social scientists like myself, but I also have the opportunity to work with communicators, lawyers, policy wonks and specialists, and students, professors from all walks of life, and people who have had business backgrounds. It does take a team, all of us having contact and communication with each other, to make what I hope is wise S&T policy.

Margonelli: That’s interesting. There’s essentially a finite group of people who are involved. They may represent lots and lots of people from around the country and around the world, but you’re constantly bumping up against, and talking with, and working through a community.

If science policy is a team sport, being able to field a team from all across the nation makes us a stronger team.

Koizumi: One important thing that I think we all have to do, but especially in places like the White House, where, I mean, there’s a big fence around my office and it is hard for people to get to. That means that we have to make the extra effort to make sure we are communicating with, engaging with people all across the country. Here is where I’m really grateful for what came out of the pandemic in terms of digital technologies, Zoom, WebEx, et cetera. Because of these technologies, we are able to reach people all across the country that we never were able to before.

I served at OSTP in the Obama administration, 2009 through 2016, and back then, we didn’t have those technologies. We were able to engage with people who could take the time to get on a plane and come to Washington, DC, and meet with us, or on our occasional travels out. Now, we can and do engage with scientists, engineers, students, community members all across the country, and for the first time, we are able to reach people we never were able to reach before. So OSTP, we’ve had tribal consultations, we’ve had listening sessions with native Hawaiian communities, with Alaskan natives, and with students in every part of the country far away from Washington, DC. That helps us make better policy, because if science policy is a team sport, being able to field a team from all across the nation makes us a stronger team.

Margonelli: Huh. That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that was going on. I want to go to the next question, which is, what does doing science policy look like in your daily life? Do you start the morning with a huddle? How does a Tuesday morning start for you?

Koizumi: This morning I was at the General Services Administration, and we had a federal government workshop on public engagement in science. That’s an important topic that we in the Biden administration and OSTP have been trying to push forward. We want to have two-way communication between scientists and the public, and we want the public to have opportunities to not only benefit from science and technology, but to participate in science and technology. That means putting together policies and tools such as citizen science, crowdsourcing, prizes, challenges, participatory technology assessment, citizen science forums, etc. to enable people from all walks of life to participate not only in communication about science, but actually doing research, and collecting data, and becoming more scientific.

We want to have two-way communication between scientists and the public, and we want the public to have opportunities to not only benefit from science and technology, but to participate in science and technology.

This workshop was about bringing together federal agencies on, let’s learn from each other. What have we been doing with our communities? What’s working? What’s not? How can we as a White House policy office help to clear away obstacles, or provide encouragement from the top, from the White House, for what the agencies are doing? That’s one part of it. Another part of my day is usually working on some piece of legislation, because we are on the same team, the Congress and the executive branch, or at least we try to be. That means, we are thinking of ways in which existing policies can work better for science and technology.

Right now, we are working on reauthorizing the National Quantum Initiative. Many of the listeners have heard quantum information sciences, quantum computing. That’s still a frontier, but that frontier is getting closer to our daily lives. We want to make sure that the research we support as a US government is expanding our frontier and expanding the possibilities for quantum computing to eventually benefit all of us, for commercial, security and scientific applications. In working with Congress, we’re hoping to provide that legislative framework to allow our US scientists and engineers to make the breakthroughs that will translate into impact in quantum.

Margonelli: You spent part of today also working on legislation?

Koizumi: Yes.

Margonelli: And then, what is the third thing that you do in a day?

Koizumi: The third thing I’m doing today is … well, next week I’m going to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. It’s a multilateral group of developed nations who get together to work on cooperation in economics, science and technology, and many other matters. I’m getting ready for that because there’s a lot of science and technology issues on our agenda. One of those is AI, artificial intelligence. We know AI has already had a transformative impact on our lives, because most of us have either experienced or used these large language models like ChatGPT. We know that AI is already transforming recommendation engines or the ways that we interact on social media platforms, and we also know it’s a global technology.

The United States has done a lot in terms of governance of AI and other emerging technologies, but we know that if we’re going to be really effective, we need a more global governance system. OECD is one of the forums in which like-minded nations with the United States, we get together and discuss how we can intelligently govern AI so that it is safe, trustworthy and secure, and that preserves the privacy and the rights for people all across the world.

Margonelli: One of the interesting things about the OSTP, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is that you can’t make anybody do anything. It’s often described as convening power. You have the power to get people together. You can go to the General Services Administration and talk about goals, and get everybody paddling in the same direction, and you can go to the OECD, and you can talk with other ministers so that everyone is coordinating and knows each other, and can communicate about what needs to be done. You also are working on legislation, although the OSTP, obviously, doesn’t vote that legislation into place, and it gets sorted out in Congress. What is your role in that? At the end of a day, do you feel like you’ve been cheerleading into the wind, or do you feel energized? What does it feel like to do that kind of work?

Koizumi: I usually feel very energized by doing science policy, because it’s about using whatever tools I have to make a difference in people’s lives. Most of the time, I’m trying to make a difference in scientists’, engineers’ and students’ lives, but I’m also trying to make a difference in all our lives, including my life as someone who lives in the United States. I’m part of American society. I’m able to be so optimistic because I have a lot of tools. You’re right, OSTP has a fairly small budget. I tell people, we don’t give out research funding and we don’t have any labs, but we do help to set the direction for federal research funding and that’s a lot of money. $200 billion a year is what the federal government invests in research and development, or R&D. $100 billion of that is research, the majority of which goes to our colleges and universities.

We all have the potential to have some impact in policy, because we’re all part of this policy enterprise. We’re all part of this democracy.

That is a lot of leverage and power, and shaping that research funding helps shape the direction of research throughout the United States, and indeed the world, because the world does look to “What does the US think is important?” as a clue to “Maybe my nation should be thinking about that as an important topic as well.” Also, I’m very fortunate to have a pretty powerful tool. I work at the White House, so I can bring people to meet with me and say, “I’m inviting you to come to the White House to have a discussion with other scientists, other engineers and policy people about a topic that President Biden thinks is important.” That means, usually people say, “Okay, I’ll come talk. I may have to dial in by WebEx, but I want to be there.”

That convening power, it’s a convening power that I did not have at other points in my career when I was not working in the White House, so I really appreciate it, and I can appreciate the impact that I’ve had. I had impact when I was not at the White House as well. We all have the potential to have some impact in policy, because we’re all part of this policy enterprise. We’re all part of this democracy.

Margonelli: I wanted to ask you how you got involved in this. I guess I would just start by saying that one of the things that’s interesting about science policy is that outside the field, it has a reputation for being a little bit dry, or perhaps abstract, or involved with very, very big things over long timeframes. Particle accelerators and massive budgets, and the Department of Defense doing research and all of these things, but so many people in it bring an intense sense of passion, and an intense personal sense to it. I wondered: how did you get involved in science policy?

Koizumi: I got involved at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I came to Washington thinking I’d be in an international affairs program, but little did I know that program had a program within it of international science and technology policy, and that was just fascinating to me. I still don’t know exactly why, but I just know that it’s like, “Oh, this is something I want to do, help shape the direction of science and technology here in the United States.” I was fortunate, having been turned onto it, that I had some opportunities to contribute. I was fortunate enough that I was able to it a career. It spoke to me. I’ve worked in my career either at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, or at OSTP here in the White House, with a few side gigs along the way including teaching at GW and working as a consultant for some other organizations.

One of the policy issues that I’m proud to have worked on is working with the National Science Foundation to double the number of graduate research fellowships that NSF offers each year from 1,000 a year to 2,000 a year.

What’s kept me engaged is other people’s passion. I get to help scientists explore their deepest curiosities of far out things, sometimes literally far out, as in galaxies that are billions of light years away. I’m also able to really make an impact on students. One of the policy issues that I’m proud to have worked on is working with the National Science Foundation to double the number of graduate research fellowships that NSF offers each year from 1,000 a year to 2,000 a year. That means that thanks to work I’ve done, 1,000 more American students are able to have their graduate educations in science and engineering supported. It’s 1,000 more dreams that I’m able to help fulfill. That’s the kind of impact that I love being involved with. I’ve been really lucky that I have been able to stay involved for now 30 years since I first landed at GW, and follow it to the White House Office of Science Technology Policy.

Margonelli: Let’s talk a little bit about your time at AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where you became famous for your analysis of the federal budget.

Koizumi: Well, I was also very lucky in that money gets people’s attention. And if you talk to scientists, engineers, they do worry about and they’re very interested in, what is the federal government doing in terms of research funding? I had people’s attention. Also, I’m lucky that that fit right into one of my research interests: the impact and influence government funding can have on the shape and directions of the research enterprise. I was able to actually watch behavior in action from working on the budget end. Most people think of budgets as fairly dry, and in some cases, it is. It is looking at rows of numbers, but these numbers do represent real dollars, real research projects, and of course, real people.

These numbers do represent real dollars, real research projects, and of course, real people.

That is a way in which I could find my way in, to balance what I really am comfortable with, which is the quantitative, and also the things that I was initially less comfortable with, which is, I guess you would say the qualitative, or the people dimension. Now, I’m able to balance those both in my life and in my career, and I think I was able to get a lot of skills from working on the federal budget and explaining it, guiding scientists and engineers through it, and talking to policymakers about this strange world of, how the hell do we decide how to spend this $200 billion that the federal government invests in R&D?

Margonelli: I want to dive a little bit deeper into that. You alluded to this, the federal budget numbers have real practical outcomes for different labs, but they also have a psychological role, where people feel good—scientists in particular feel like the world is secure—and it’s going in the right direction when we’re spending a certain percentage of GDP on science. In some ways that’s totally understandable, but you must’ve been watching this for close to 30 years, watching this profound relationship between the spending and the feeling in the scientific enterprise. I wondered if you had thoughts about that.

Koizumi: As a lapsed economist, I understand that people do assign other values to money and funding. Money shouldn’t be how we get self-worth or validation, but yet, it is. For the United States to be investing in some research project, it’s not just about the money, it is about validation. It’s a signal that, this must be important. Conversely, if the federal government invests less money in research, or in a certain field, researchers can’t help but feel, “That must mean my research is less important to the nation.” A lot of what I do is say, “Well, no.” It’s a valid reaction, but it’s actually because, budget caps and I could go into all sorts of explanations about what is happening in Washington, DC, that caused a research budget to go down.

Margonelli: Can you give us a little bit of detail into how you went from being the budget person at AAAS to joining OSTP? One month, you’re outside, you’re analyzing the budget, you’re explaining it to reporters and stuff, and a couple of months later, you’re helping prepare the president’s budget.

Koizumi: Well, I’m going to take everyone back to 2008. President Obama was the elected president, and he—as most president-elects do—put together a transition team between November and January. That transition team, its job was to put together policy proposals and agenda for this new incoming administration. At that time, it was the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, and the president-elect said that we needed to reinvest and recover in America. He put together what ended up being a nearly $800 billion Recovery Act. The transition team recognized early on that research and development needed to be part of the recovery, and they were looking for someone who knew something about the R&D budget of the United States. They found me, and they asked me to be part of the transition team. There I was after the election, putting together proposals for how the federal government might invest through the Recovery Act in research and development and research infrastructure.

I am happy to say that about $22 billion of those ideas made it into the final Recovery Act. I must have done a good job, but I was also lucky in that during the transition, President-elect Obama named John Holdren to be his director of OSTP. John Holdren was a recent president of the AAAS, so I knew him. I reached out and said, “When you get to OSTP, there is a job, Assistant Director for Federal Research and Development, and I hope you’ll consider me for that job.” He did, the rest is history. I joined him at OSTP in early 2009. That’s how I went from a nonprofit to the White House, and that was my first federal job, to be at OSTP. The rest has been a wild ride ever since, for the eight years I was at OSTP during the Obama administration, four years away, and now, three years and three months in for the Biden Administration.

Margonelli: That’s a really long period of time with the OSTP. I wanted to ask you a little bit about how, during this time, you’ve watched things evolve. New ideas have become the norm. You’ve alluded to this a little bit, but if you consider, for example, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, it started with legislation in the early 2000s. I think it was passed into law in 2003, and that whole project has matured. For people who are listening to the podcast, the very first episode of Science Policy IRL was with Quinn Spadola, who is in the National Nanotechnology Coordination office. That initiative has evolved, and involved lots of community, or different ways of doing science, and it’s also inspired things, the Quantum Initiative has parts of that in it. Can you talk a little bit about how the conduct of science has evolved through this different legislation over your time in this world?

We need AI research to be open to everyone. AI research is too important to be left just to leading AI companies with billions of dollars in resources.

Koizumi: That’s a big question, and I think I can only get at fragments. What I’ve observed—and I hope we have tried to help through policy—is new fields always emerge, new fields are emerging. The data show this, that research these days in most disciplines has to be more collaborative: more people, larger teams, and larger international collaborations. That means that we as a policy enterprise have to try to keep up, to make sure that we are able to provide large scale research infrastructure, that we are able to support teams working in very different locations, connected through digital infrastructure, that we are able to give access to research opportunities to people all over the country, and not just in a few places in the country. Our focused efforts, like on nanotechnology, have really benefited from that. The Nanotechnology Initiative looks very different from how it looked 20 years ago to respond to these changes.

That means that we are not done focusing on research efforts. Most recently, we at OSTP stood up a national AI research initiative office, and that is because, obviously AI has flowered, and it’s become the thing, and we are trying to adapt the tools that we have always had to this emerging discipline. That’s why, for example, President Biden asked us, in his AI executive order, to ask the National Science Foundation to set up a national AI research resource pilot. That’s going to be a research infrastructure, a data infrastructure for AI research, and it’s deliberately designed to be able to take in ideas and people and capabilities from all across the country. We need AI research to be open to everyone. AI research is too important to be left just to leading AI companies with billions of dollars in resources. We need smaller institutions, academic institutions, students, civil society to be able to participate in AI research for public missions as well. That’s an example of how we are trying to keep adapting to how research continues to change, not only the topics, but the ways in which we do research.

Margonelli: All right, this is really interesting. I want to wind down a little bit with the last question, which is, what are the big questions for you about science policy? You started as a social scientist, thinking about science and scientists. What are the big, looming questions that keep you up at night or get you out of bed in the morning?

Koizumi: I prefer to stay on the optimistic side, so I’m going to answer in the things that get me out of bed in the morning. Some of my research questions are … I’ve talked about how this research enterprise is changing, and especially that global dimension. We have a global research enterprise in ways that we didn’t have in the twentieth century. My question is: What does that mean for national science and technology policies like the ones I work on? It used to be that the United States government would invest in basic research in full confidence that the benefits of that research would stay in the United States. We can’t be so sure of that anymore. How do we as a nation respond to that changing character, where insights and discoveries made in one place could instantly be distributed all around the world? Conversely, a discovery that’s made in Australia could be replicated in a US lab within a matter of days. That’s one question.

Another question is: How do we make sure that people all across the country have the opportunity to benefit from and participate in science and technology? That’s more of a very big picture question, and I can only take a bite, a chunk at a time, but that’s still a question that animates me. I know that I’ve been very lucky. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in an academic family connected to Ohio State, and I had the opportunity to participate in science, math, and so many other opportunities. I know we all need to do better to make sure that kids growing up today have opportunities like the ones that I was able to access because of where I was and who I was. Those are some of the questions that keep me going, and it keeps me energized.

I hope you get to experience this intersection of where science and technology meets public policy, because again, public policy is about translating our visions and our aspirations for a future into some action that can have an impact on making it possible.

Day to day, it’s not a question, but just the opportunity to meet people really energizes me now. Right now, I’m feeling very energized because I’m talking to you, whom I had not met before, and I’m talking, I know, to listeners who probably have never heard of me before. I hope I’m able to provide some of my story, some of my questions, and some of my experiences to help make their own decisions. What I have told students, and what I tell people now is that science policy is for everyone. Some of us will make a full-time career out of it. For some students and scholars, it’ll mean a congressional visits day once a year. It could be a community project that they devote 10% of their time to, or it could be a short-term opportunity, like a fellowship that brings them into a science policy organization for a year or two, and a year or two could turn into a lifetime, or a career.

Whatever it is, whatever model works for you, I hope you get to experience this intersection of where science and technology meets public policy, because again, public policy is about translating our visions and our aspirations for a future into some action that can have an impact on making it possible.

Margonelli: I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you.

Koizumi: Thank you so much for the chance to talk.

Margonelli: If you would like to learn more about Kei Koizumi’s work at the OSTP, check out the resources in our show notes, and please visit issues.org/survey to participate in our survey of who does science policy.

Is there something about science policy you’d like to know? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected], or by tagging us on social media using the hashtag #SciencePolicyIRL.

Please subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts, and thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and our audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief at Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for listening.

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Cite this Article

Koizumi, Kei, and Lisa Margonelli. “Kei Koizumi Advises the President.” Issues in Science and Technology (May 21, 2024).