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Fighting for Federal Funding of Science

UNI alum Kei Koizumi one of Obama’s point men

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Kei Koizumi, science funding adviser to President of the United States Barack Obama, federal funding research

Kei Koizumi (UNI’91) advises President Obama on science funding. Photo courtesy of Koizumi

During his State of the Union address on February 13, President Obama gave a shout-out of sorts to a BU alumnus. The president’s proposal to spend $1 billion creating institutes to foster manufacturing had been refined by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), whose assistant director for federal research and development is Kei Koizumi (UNI’91).

With the looming possibility of major research cuts on March 1 from so-called sequestration, Koizumi’s office is the catbird seat for watching the battle to avert a federal rollback in science support. He got his job in the newly inaugurated Obama administration in 2009 because of his prominence in the D.C. science community and his outspoken advocacy for federal support of science research. He spent 14 years at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, including a decade directing its R&D budget and policy program. That led to his being asked to serve on the Obama transition team and then at the White House.

In between work and workouts (he won a gold medal almost three years ago as a hurdler at the international Gay Games) Koizumi took time to speak with BU Today about the state of American science.

BU Today: What are your duties at the White House?

Koizumi: We try to promote policies to keep United States science and engineering strong. That includes funding, but also creating the right laws and policies to support U.S. science, engineering, and innovation. I work for the director of OSTP, John Holdren, President Obama’s science and technology advisor. I support him in determining appropriate levels of federal investment, including which areas, which agencies are best positioned to support that. We don’t do budget levels, but we try to pull together agency budgets and recommend to the president which areas are facing challenges.

For example, in the State of the Union address, President Obama outlined proposals for revitalizing American manufacturing. There are a lot of manufacturing technologies we don’t yet have, so federal investment in research could make some progress in those areas. Our office is trying to coordinate efforts of federal agencies to fund research where it will have the maximum impact. President Obama announced creation of federal manufacturing institutes. OSTP was responsible for putting together proposals for his consideration.

How did BU prepare you for this work?

Actually, I was a liberal arts person at BU. I had a grounding in economics and political science, and these subjects have come in very handy. The connection between science, technology, and the economy is widely understood, but is not understood in depth: how it is that advances in science affect a nation’s economy. Now that I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve come to appreciate a lot more how economies work. I got interested in these issues along the Charles River. My concentration was political economy.

How do you decide which areas of science to recommend for funding—why breast cancer over lung cancer, or cancer over global warming?

There’s no formula for deciding scientific priorities. It is not a science, but it is certainly informed by input from the science community—who identify what are bright ideas—combined with policy makers, who tell us the challenges we face as a nation. Manufacturing—that came out of the economic crisis we are coming out of. The decisions are necessary because there’s never enough money.

Why manufacturing as opposed to climate change or renewable energy development, or will the proposed institutes cover those areas as well?

In fact, they will. Primarily, it’s because the U.S. government has been supporting many types of research for decades. Agricultural research, medical research, climate change in a big way since 1990. But there are some areas in which the government has not had a role. The president is trying to move the government in partnership, for example, with manufacturers. In no way does this mean other areas are less important; it means we’ve got it down. With manufacturing, we are still building the federal model for how to invest.

How important is institutional reputation in making these calls?

The federal government doesn’t do a lot of that; most federal research funding goes out through peer-reviewed grants. Peer review figures out which are the most scientifically promising ideas. It’s a strength of the U.S. system—open competition for ideas. It is increasingly done in other places, because nations like Japan and the European Union have tried to learn from this peer-reviewed model, rather than each university getting a certain percentage of research dollars. Only a small fraction of U.S. funding gets distributed that way. Although BU gets a lot of U.S. funding, that money arrives one peer-reviewed grant at a time.

How big a threat is sequestration to the scientific research currently being done in this country?

Sequestration, if it happens, could be the biggest threat to U.S. science and engineering that you could imagine. It’s going to be an immediate, large cut. A lot of exciting science projects at universities like BU and federal laboratories would be halted, cut back, or abandoned. That would be a disaster. Projects require many years to happen.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s much more manageable now, four years in. I get here about 8:30. When I leave is not really under my control. Things have a habit of happening at 3 o’clock or 5 o’clock. This is the first job where I’ve had a BlackBerry.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part is to keep together, mentally and policy-wise, the very far-flung U.S. research enterprise we have. There are 24 federal departments and agencies that support research and development. Hundreds of universities perform this research. Dozens of national labs perform this research. Keeping all these pieces in mind is difficult enough, let alone suggesting ways to make it work together.

What’s the greatest joy of your job?

For one, being able to support John Holdren, and he’s supporting President Obama in keeping science and research and engineering front and center. And then there are these other perks. I work across the street from the White House. Making a difference in how the United States supports science and students. It’s never enough, but by most accounts, we are still the world’s leader. That’s cause for optimism. Every day, students around the world vote with their feet by coming to places like BU to learn from this world-class science and engineering enterprise, and contribute to it.

1 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

One Comment on Fighting for Federal Funding of Science

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2013 at 7:54 am

    Great interview. Thank you. The political situation re sequestration really is a terrible threat to academic institutions. The sad part of that is how Republicans are actually getting what they want: in the words of Republican strategist Grover Norquist (hell of a name), “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

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