Walter Valdivia Researches for the White House

The Science Policy IRL series pulls back the curtain on who does what in science policy and how they shaped their career path. In previous episodes we’ve looked at the cosmology of science policy through the eyes of people who work at federal agencies and the National Academies, but this time we are exploring think tanks. 

Walter Valdivia describes how a chance encounter while he was getting a PhD in public policy at Arizona State University led him into science policy. Since then he’s worked at think tanks including Brookings and the Mercatus Center and is now at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, which does research for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this episode, we’ll talk to Walter about what think tanks do in the policy world and how policy sometimes creates inherent paradoxes.

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

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Walter Valdivia Researches the White House



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

I’m Lisa Margonelli, Editor in Chief at Issues. In this episode of Science Policy IRL, I’m joined by Walter Valdivia who is a research staff member at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, widely known as STPI. In previous episodes of this series, we’ve looked at the science policy landscape through the eyes of people who work in federal agencies and at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Today we’re looking at a different spot on the science policy map: think tanks that supply research about problems, policies, and outcomes to decisionmakers. STPI is a unique think tank for many reasons–just one of which is that it does research for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this episode we’ll talk about what think tanks do and also Walter’s thoughts some of the paradoxes of policy.

Walter, welcome! Thank you for joining us.

Walter Valdivia: Glad to be here, Lisa. Thanks for inviting me.

Margonelli: So one question we often start with is a very basic one. How do you define science policy?

Valdivia: I’ll give you a basic answer. Harvey Brooks in ’64 gave us a clear distinction, a useful distinction that is, that you have two realms in science policy. Science for policy is when science informs policy and regulations like that, that goes into the EPA or the FDA or even a larger scale. And then policy for science or the public administration of science and the scientific enterprise of the nation. That is a standard textbook. Lemme give you a little bit more of a twist to play with this definition and be part of a collection of conversations that you’re having. I like to think in public policy terms in general, but in science policy in particular, of the irony or the paradox inherent to policy. And I think this exists in both realms in the science or policy realm and in the policy for science realm.

The most direct way to imagine is that every policy has unanticipated consequences, but at the same time, when you get the real cosmic joke on you is when the very purposes of your policy are undermined by the policy itself. And this is in both cases, unanticipated consequences is very important to incorporate in our policy thinking. And we could weep or we could laugh at the inevitable paradox of sometimes undermining our own goals by the policies that we pursue. But let me get out of the esoteric definitional game. Lemme give you an example of what I’m talking about.

We are in a renaissance of industrial policy. The current administration has as a set of policies rebounding from the tragedy, the self-imposed strategy of economic downturn of the COVID period, has not only injected a new energy using federal monies into the scientific enterprise, but also new vision and more engaged science and also more directed investment for innovation in some strategic sectors.

Margonelli: To paraphrase this, essentially we’re now trying to engineer jobs through science and innovation. And that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about industrial policy. We’re trying to create industries through government intervention.

Valdivia: Correct, or give them a boost, or repatriating industries that had started in the US and for economic reasons of the management of the supply chain had been relocated. Let’s talk specifically of microchips and the important role of Taiwan in the supply chain of microchips. So this means that the government will place a few bets via subsidies tax credits on some industries. And part of the current renaissance of industrial policy is the government will make some significant bets at the earliest stage, at the innovative stage, at the research stage as well for this industry. Well, you know that there’s a whole array of support that some strategic industries are receiving.

Margonelli: Where does the policy undermine itself?

Valdivia: Every time you favor an industry or every time the government creates some kind of protection or subsidy, the government also creates—and this is a normal process of democracy—it also creates an interest group that will defend that subsidy forever. And part of the economic game of boosting an industry is to get a competitive edge, to give the nation’s economy a competitive advantage in that area. The irony of the situation is that however necessary this might be—and I’m not questioning the necessity of some investments of this sort—is that you also create a lobby that protects the subsidy and the industry becomes accustomed to this additional extra favor. So we’ll see what is going to happen going forward. But one thing that we for sure going to see together with if there’s effective success in the intentions of this policy, it’s also the creation of a very strong political lobby for represented the industries that defend the subsidy.

Margonelli: This paradox that you’re talking about then is that in trying to make certain industries more competitive, we may actually be sowing the seeds of their lack of competitiveness by creating lobbies and by creating dependencies.

Valdivia: Yes.

Margonelli: Wow. Okay. This has been a quick trip to the middle earth of science policy. Frequently we talk about the aims and goals of science policies, and now what you’re talking about really is about getting right to the heart of the delicate possibilities of arranging resources and policy and intention and goals, and then of course the real world and what actually happens.

So you work at a place called STPI. I want to talk to you a little bit about what your day job is. How do you take this sort of deep sense of the conflicts and paradoxes in science policy into your day job? Explain to us what STPI is.

Valdivia: Sure. STPI is the acronym for the Science and Technology Policy Institute. And from now on, you’re going to see me introducing lots of acronyms as science policy. I’ll try to spell them out. But do please stop me if I drop an acronym without explaining what it is. So STPI is an FFRDC: a federally funded research and development center. These are independently run research centers, that nevertheless receive federal funding. They’re usually connected to a agency or they have a primary agency of service for which they support. This is highly specialized technical support for things that agencies cannot do themselves in terms of research. They don’t have either the capacity or the purview of their mission. So these research centers support specific federal agencies. And in the case of STPI, the federal agency that we support is the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. It was created to provide technical support to the Office of Science and Technology policy. At the same time and for about 30 years now, perhaps 20, it was so necessary and useful for STPI to also support other agencies in the science bureaucracy to develop the capabilities to support the OSTP robustly across the federal government. And so about 50% of our portfolio projects is directly with OSTP and the other 50% is supporting agencies such as the Department of Energy, NASA, NIST and so on.

Margonelli: Which is the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Valdivia: Very good.

Margonelli: And the STPI is also as an FFRDC, a federally funded research and development corporation, is also nested within something called the Institute for Defense Analysis. So you’ve got this kind of Russian doll structure, although I guess it would be an American doll structure, since it is offering things advice to the US government. But you have these sort of nested structures of organizations that offer support and research for different agencies and entities within the federal government. So tell us, what do you do for STPI?

Valdivia: In the context of supporting providing technical support to OSTP, STPI provides a range of services related to research. These may include responding to specific questions that OSTP is seeking, and some of these questions may have a very quick turnaround. The president picks up the phone calls Arati Prabhakar at OSTP, and she designates a division head to answer a question that urgently needs an answer. And they pick up the phone calls STPI and say, can you answer this for us? Can you give us a memo within 48 hours?

Margonelli: 48 hours, can you give me an example of what they might ask for? Have you had to answer one of these?

Valdivia: I will have to be honest with you that I haven’t received yet a 48 turnaround task. I just know this has happened, and the reason is that I joined STPI only six months ago. I’m working on longer turnaround projects, but it could be something urgent as in something related to R&D statistics, something related to known impacts of some policies. And so it’s just a matter of collecting information or knowing the expertise that who knows where the data is, where the answers are, and just pull them together very quickly. And that’s why you have a bunch of researchers at STPI with ample capabilities to respond because of their long experience working for and in the federal R&D infrastructure.

Margonelli: That sounds kind of fascinating and also a little bit high pressure.

Valdivia: Indeed. But that was the extreme example of a very, very immediate quick turnaround. STPI, being a full research outfit, also will provide long-term support for long-term studies. Here’s an example of a longer term support that we do. The NSTC, the National Science and Technology Council has a number of subcommittees on which they organize topics of interest for the national R&D enterprise. We could support directly a subcommittee that is writing a report, say on research and development infrastructure. Now of course the subcommittee is good on their own organized writing parties and we would provide the support that you would do as a research outfit with the knowledge and experience and the technical knowledge that would support the writing exercise. We would write it ourselves. That’s one kind of project we could support the writing. That’s another kind of project. But as you see, I’m trying to, in this example, give you some of the versatility of support that an FFRDC can provide the US government. Just finishing that thought, there’s this longer term projects and there’s the two day turnaround and of course there’s a lot in between.

Margonelli: What were you doing last Tuesday? How were you doing science policy?

Valdivia: I would have to look at my agenda.

Margonelli: Okay, what were you doing yesterday?

Valdivia: I know where you’re going to with the questions. What does it look like a normal day? What entails this position? I’m currently a project leader, four projects, two of them related to projects with the OSTP and two with federal agencies. So in each project I have a team, I have gathered a team. Small clarification, I am project leader in some projects. I am a team member in others, led by others. The project leader tends to collect the team, gather the team together between the junior researchers and the more senior researchers depending on the expertise of each member. So a lot of the project leader’s work is to organize the team, to direct the work of the team to start from research design to data collection through analysis to the writeup of a report.

And as a team member, I have specific research tasks segments of a larger project that I need to work on. So a typical day involves meetings with my teams, involves writing research, doing some of the actual research, and it involves also meeting with the sponsors. We call sponsors the primary contact person in the US government with respect to that project. It may also include interviews, say in a project we need to collect information from universities, so we will call a number of universities and so on so forth. This is the sort of activity that I would do in a normal day.

Margonelli: Is it fun and rewarding?

Valdivia: It is very much so. This is a very clever question, Lisa, because as you know, I have worked in the think tank world for the last 11 years. First for Brookings and then at George Mason. And one of the high aspirations of a think tank is that that work, that white paper that you put so much work into, it gets to be read by someone in the government or someone in Capitol Hill. And the huge advantage of an FFRDC is that an FFRDC exists to provide answers directly to the questions asked by the agency, the sponsor agency. So it is enormously rewarding to know that someone will read these reports, someone who is actually thinking about these questions and who can potentially do something about the policies that are inherent to that.

Margonelli: So there’s sort of a direct connection to decisionmakers that makes this research very rewarding.

Valdivia: Yes. Now to this, I should add of course, that we provide independent objective and technical support to the agencies. And by this I mean that a research question that a political officer who may be inclined to advance a policy may find in our answers that is not such a great idea and we are agnostic as to the political content of a particular research question. But still, if this is of a stream of information that helps decision makers, I think it’s a good start.

Margonelli: That’s really interesting. So I want to back up now and find out how you came to be involved in science policy. When you started out, back when you were a little kid, did you say, I want to grow up and be a science policy guy at STPI?

Valdivia: Not even my children would say that. I think being a science policy scholar is not within the, first of all, it is not like being a firefighter or an astronaut, something of public visibility. I think for most of us it’s something you bump into as you’re walking down life and you’re training in grad school and you just start caring for some of these questions and some of these puzzles.

Margonelli: So tell me about your path. How did you bump into it?

Valdivia: I was finishing my first year of doctoral studies and this was at Arizona State. And after this year I was very interested in the philosophy of science. I was reading a lot of that and it’s starting to poke on the edges of philosophy of science, political theory of science, policy science and its role in government. And it was not a very systematic search, but I landed on some key books. One of them was Between Politics and Science by some professor from Rutgers University by the name of David Guston. And I look him up and I find that he’s no longer at Rutgers, he’s at Arizona State, just around the corner from what I was studying. So I shoot him an email and I had some questions about the book, some challenging questions, and he says, oh, come by for a 15 minute talk. And I stayed for two hours chatting with him about his book and at the end of it he offered me a research assistantship. So I moved from my home department to continue my doctoral training, but now directly engaged via this RA-ship with the center that him was running at ASU.

Margonelli: So can I ask you, what was your major before or what was the focus of your doctoral studies before you got interested in science policy.

Valdivia: It’s public administration and policy. My PhDs in public administration and before that I did a master’s in economics, and there was a unique coincidence of interest in that conversation because in his book, him being a political scientist had used a economic theory that I was familiar with and that’s where most of my questions were going. And the principal-agent modeling problem of science policy. In fact, my first paper ever written in science policy was using the principal agent relations.

Margonelli: I think this is very interesting how your career and more theoretical issues has led you into very concrete exercise of uncovering what’s going on in the black box of science that the US government funds.

Valdivia: It’s very generous of you. I would like to see that I have taken glimpses inside that black box. It’s very complex, dense, which is, I should add, typical of a well-functioning democracy. There’s a lot of black boxes inside and they benefit from a little bit of light.

Margonelli: So let’s talk a little bit about your career path after you got your PhD. So you had your sort of conversion moment sitting in Dave Guston’s office talking about the principal-agent problem in science policy, and then you became a research assistant. And then what happened?

Valdivia: I signed up for something that I hadn’t imagined. That’s what I was laughing a little when you said, “when you were a kid, were you thinking to become a science policy scholar?” At that time, him and Dan Sarewitz at ASU had a very large grant to set up a center for the study of nanotechnology in society. And nanotechnology is something that I had never imagined studying or observing, maybe from the distance of popular mechanics, I dunno, an article, but of course my training was in policy. The School of Public Affairs at the time gave you the public administration and policy theory tracks. And so coming out of my doctoral studies, I went out to the job market and the Brookings Institution offered me. At the same time I had a couple of other academic offers. But being a policy think tank and me being a policy scholar, there seemed to be a clear match and I’m glad I took that path. But it was also a conscious path to step outside of academia and the traditional tenure track career of what would be a PhD trained professor.

Margonelli: Let’s stop for a minute and talk a little bit about Brookings. What is the role of think tanks in the sort of cosmology of policy in the United States? And specifically, what is the role of Brookings? What was attractive to you? Why did you leave the academic pathway to get involved in a think tank?

Valdivia: There is a nice concept that has gained greater currency in science policy called use inspire research. And the idea that of use inspire research is that you can do fundamental research at the same time that is oriented to some application instead of a single spectrum, you folded it and you have this match of really high theoretical or fundamental research with a orientation. And so the job of think tanks is to advance research that informs policies, that evaluates policies that produces new ideas. And it’s an interesting thing because they have become a ecology that supports the idea generation functions of government. And that is what I think Brookings and other think tanks to.

Margonelli: So they’re sort of a bubbling fountain of ideas. They’re set up specifically to generate ideas that might lead to productive policies and they might follow different sorts of political ideologies. The different think tanks sort of surface different sorts of policy ideas and concepts. And they do a mixture of promoting those concepts and promoting the thinking and also spreading them to policy makers who may implement them.

Valdivia: Correct. You quickly picked up on the fact that there is an inevitable political affiliation. I don’t mean in the strong term of party affiliation. I don’t think tanks are so overtly pledging to a party, but anytime you have a normative idea, anytime you’re prescriptive in policy studies, of course your idea will land better on one side of the aisle. And if you get together with like-minded people, most of your ideas, however independent and objective, if they’re prescriptive, will probably have a bent. And so generally you imagine, think tanks range along a spectrum because we have a bipartisan system in the US or two party system in the US the spectrum is from one side to another. But having said that, I think that almost all think tanks have scholars who, aware of their normativity, try to get to conclusions that follow their analysis, being impartial more than apolitical, impartial in the way you conduct the research. It’s an aspiration that I saw pursue in practice by my colleagues, myself. And at the same time think tanks, whatever their political bend, they may serve as critique for that, which is their preferred set of policies. And I think that’s perhaps the most useful part of the production of ideas is any renewal and any reform starts with a good critique.

Margonelli: Was there a culture shock in going from academia to a place like Brookings, which is really one of the very top think tanks in the sort of Washington pantheon?

Valdivia: Yes. I wouldn’t say cultural shock, but what was perhaps not shocking, peculiar in my experience, is starting with the first draft, passing through colleagues and receive the sensible feedback of getting rid of the theoretical section nobody’s going to read. And that the theoretical contribution is normally what public policy professional journals are seeking in the contributions you do in peer review journals. What is your theoretical contribution of this study? So it was more of a change of tone, a change of priorities in the production of knowledge. You have to get used to that when you move from academia to the think tanks, and I would say there’s people who do it so well, moving from one side to the other that it’s certainly not impossible. You could call it a type of bilingualism, writing papers for peer review journals and white papers in think tanks.

Margonelli: The think tanks put out white papers and then they ultimately move on to things like op-eds and more public facing opinion pieces to spread out their ideas.

Valdivia: And you nailed on something, you’re putting your finger on something that is being a development. I would say over the last 20 years, the increased currency of social media has created some kind of competition in the market of attention where think tanks want to participate and who scholars in think tanks are sometimes increasingly more invested in having a social media presence than doing the old fashioned job of substantive research.

Margonelli: So from Brookings, you went to I think another think tank. Where did you go from Brookings?

Valdivia: Yes. An intermediate step. I would say think tanks entirely independent of the university system, but there are research centers specialized in policy questions, which by all accounts would be think tanks but are housed within universities. In this case, I worked for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Margonelli: And then ultimately you went on from there to STPI.

Valdivia: Yes.

Margonelli: Yeah. So in your journey through these different zones of science, policy, deliberation and research, what are the big outstanding questions that motivate you to do this work? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Valdivia: My alarm clock?

But I do understand the question. Here is something that is appealing to me of the work of an FFRDC. You receive questions that are pressing for the US government and you get a chance to use your training and your experience to do an impartial independent analysis. Nobody prescribes as the conclusions of a reports, but you know that somebody who cares about this topic is going to read it. In fact, you’re answering a question that they post. And the appeal is that you remain entirely anonymous like a consulting firm that delivers a report to a client and is a relationship between the consulting firm and the client. An FFRDC delivers the research to the sponsor and the US government and the sponsor will decide what to do with that report. They could input in the policy mix of other considerations that they’re using. It could be put in the drawer and forgotten. There’s many things that could happen and yet you’re done with your job. So the appeal of anonymity and being able to have a say and someone in a political principal position hearing what they’re saying, but then you no longer need to be an advocate for the policy prescription, the policy recommendations the way you would in a think tank. In a think tank, a lot of the game is participating in the public debate entering the public square. And so you could say that the second life of the paper begins with the publication of the white paper. In our case, it’s more humble than that. More anonymous.

Margonelli: This is a very interesting picture. I’m just going to reflect a little bit on it. For one thing, it’s the absolute opposite of social media and the way that the public debate around policies transpires right now in the public debate. There is a lot of personal attachment and identification with the policy ideas. There’s a lot of discussion and the concept of anonymity is not just an anathema, it is a disadvantage in the conversation. And yet what you’re doing, the anonymity is a strength and it is an interesting kind of influence because on the one hand, it could be very influential or like you say, it could just end up in a drawer and it’s this completely other channel of information and policy deliberation that is invisible to a lot of people.

Valdivia: Yes. But I think it satisfies the role of the honest broker.

Margonelli: Explain to me what the honest broker is.

Valdivia: To put simply because there’s a whole book on it. It’s an impartial expert who will honestly intervene with their knowledge and expertise in the debate and aware that of the terms of the debate and the contestation inherent to the debate. The political principals that an FFRDC serve are people in government and being part of the government are subject to all the checks and balances built in our system. The policies that they’re debating, they will be debated publicly. So the FFRDC is merely doing an input on a specific tiny technical point that will be part of the cognitive background on which that political agent will engage the policy debate. So think tanks perhaps used to have several roles, one of which was similar to this, the honest broker, the expertise transmitted to the government regardless of influence, but of course they never needed to limit themselves to participate in the public arena. And connecting to something I said a moment ago about the increased currency of social media. Maybe now we see a lot of participation in an increase in more aggressive participation in the public debate. Precisely because everything is tweeted.

Margonelli: We started this conversation talking a little bit about the black box of science and what it takes to look inside it. And I think that your discussion of your career and your current position has kind of illuminated some of what goes on in the other black box of how the decisions are made. And I thank you for talking with us.

Valdivia: That was my pleasure.

Margonelli: If you would like to learn more about Walter Valdivida’s work, check out the resources in our show notes.  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. 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.