Lawmakers urge incoming White House science chief to streamline agencies’ tech priorities

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 20: Director of DARPA, Arati Prabhakar, (L) and coanchor of CNBC’s Squawk Alley, Jon Fortt, speak onstage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 20, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

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Senators urged Arati Prabhakar to coordinate agencies’ competing emerging technology priorities to ensure the U.S. continues to contend with China, if confirmed as Office of Science and Technology Policy director, at her nomination hearing Wednesday.

Prabhakar needs to consolidate conflicting lists of high-priority emerging technologies at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, CIA, Department of Commerce and OSTP itself, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who was invited to the Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

The task should be made easier by the fact that President Biden elevated the director role to a Cabinet-level post, when he named since-resigned Eric Lander to the position, and Prabhakar has previously headed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“I think OSTP, when properly led, may be the only place that can look across all jurisdictions about where we may need to make the kind of record investments that under your leadership we will hopefully make coming out of the Senate this week,” Warner said.

Prabhakar was last month nominated to the post by President Biden. If confirmed, the former DARPA director would be the first woman, immigrant and person of color to lead OSTP.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Prabhakar is the “right person” to implement the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which is currently being considered by Congress and would not only see OSTP’s director establish a working group coordinating activities in key technology areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing but require agencies to submit comprehensive science and technology strategies.

For her part, Prabhakar expressed hope USICA would be signed into law and improve her ability to coordinate research and development (R&D) at agencies.

“One thing I want to do is respect and honor those different missions, and then I want to knock down barriers to help those different parts of our federal R&D enterprise achieve those missions,” Prabhakar said. “And I want to knit them together, so that they can do the things together that they can’t do separately.”

Despite competition with China, fundamental research should be conducted openly for the benefit of the research community — though the same is not true of product development and applied work, she added. 

Cantwell also expressed concern over the lack of a cohesive national cybersecurity strategic plan, a plan OSTP might help deliver.

“My hope is the Cabinet position will give me an opportunity to be more effective than science and technology has been in the past on that side,” Prabhakar said.

In response to Sen. Roger Wicker’s, R-Miss., comments that Prabhakar’s first job should be ensuring OSTP employees are treated with “fairness and dignity” — given Lander’s resignation over accusations of bullying and intimidation — she noted acting Director Alondra Nelson had already set the foundation for a “respectful” environment.

Prabhakar further acknowledged she couldn’t perform her job if there was so much as the appearance of a conflict of interest, after Wicker pointed out she has business ties to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, whose foundation, Schmidt Futures, Politico reported indirectly paid the salaries of two OSTP employees under Lander.

“I hope she can assure the committee that she’ll avoid conflicts of interest and undue outside influence over the nation’s scientific agenda or the appearance thereof,” Wicker said.

Prabhakar’s confirmation by the Senate by simple majority is expected in the coming weeks. Senators from both parties praising her illustrious career during the hearing.

-In this Story-

Arati Prabhakar, China, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), emerging technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Office of Science and Technology Policy
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