Nelson Memo Targeted Again

The Nelson memo is back in Congress' crosshairs

Yesterday, I critiqued the report OSTP delivered to its Congressional committees regarding the financial and other impacts of the August 2022 Nelson memo.

This memo has had a difficult history:

  • It was issued when Nelson was acting Director of OSTP, and while the current Senate-approved Director was in the midst of final confirmation hearings
    • The initial release consisted of two parts — one redolent of pure OA PR, and another a mix of OA PR and more serious, lawyerly, adult thinking
      • This made the release look rushed and amateurish
    • Releasing an important policy mandate that would tie her boss to a policy she had no hand in crafting or approving made Nelson’s move look like a rookie mistake by an inexperienced administrator
      • Nelson left OSTP soon thereafter
  • Congressional scrutiny started almost immediately, with a sternly worded outline of concerns following within a few months
  • These concerns continued to be sounded, as second-order legal and financial effects appeared either insurmountable or worrisome
    • The funding also became a political football for anti-“woke” Republicans because of its emphasis on “equity” and alignment with science
  • In March 2024, OSTP was given 100 days to produce a more thorough evaluation
  • This was produced yesterday, and it was underwhelming

Now, the committees overseeing OSTP have reintroduced some familiar language stripping funding in their portion of a forthcoming appropriations bill:

SEC. 552. None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be used to implement, administer, apply, enforce, or carry out the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s August 25, 2022, Memorandum to Executive Departments and Agencies entitled ‘‘Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research.’’

This time, there are no direct entanglements with anti-“woke” sentiments. Instead, it looks like a blunt deprivation of funding.

  • That said, Sec. 553 is all about shutting down DEI and various “woke” funding, making the disentangling of Sec. 552 an even starker repudiation.

The Nelson memorandum is back in the crosshairs.

Because Washington politics are in such disrepair, this is seen as part of a GOP-led movement to attack the Justice Department by stripping $1 billion from the DOJ, defunding various initiatives the Biden Administration likes, and blocking the DOJ’s request for a new FBI headquarters.

However, with the OSTP language separated out, it may have a better chance of passing intact, as noted above.

I have to say, if Nelson wanted people on her side, she didn’t do anything to ensure it, as I wrote in September 2022:

[Director Arati] Prabhakar will be entering the job in the wake of the OSTP public access guidance issued last month. What might she see as an experienced administrator?

She may note first and foremost the lack of stakeholder involvement. She may register the discrepancies in tone and detail between various elements of what was released. She may clock the budget implications.

She may also note that these materials were issued by someone in a transitional, acting role. In fact, Nelson’s lack of administrative experience may be on display in the timing of the guidance’s development and release. It’s more than a little unusual for an acting or interim Director to put in place a policy with so many potential implications. It seems even stranger when you are reminded that Prabhakar was nominated in June, and given a strong probability of flying through the confirmation process — which she did.

Yet, not two months after she was nominated and less than a month before she was confirmed, her acting Director predecessor released a policy with wide-ranging policy, practice, and economic implications. A more experienced administrator might have pumped the brakes in June, mapped out the timing of the approval of her incoming boss, and shelved the policy proposal until September or October. . . . With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) likely to weigh in on the OSTP’s superficial economic analysis for its new public access guidance, Prabhakar may also be facing intense questioning about the obligations her predecessor created — without stakeholder input, and without a sufficiently robust analysis. It’s also possible she intervenes before this point.

My guess is that Prabhakar was never a fan of the policy, and certainly not a fan of Nelson’s overzealous and clumsy stint as the acting Director, leaving her with a mess to clean up. It wouldn’t surprise me — but we will probably never know — if Prabhakar quietly set about reversing things behind the scenes. That’s what an experienced administrator would do — get things back to neutral, get some “red” off the ledger, and move forward, all without stirring up any major public issues.

I doubt she’s aggressively lobbying for the funding of Nelson’s initiatives.

Add this to the criticism of expenses surrounding REF29, and the era of unbridled OA funding seems to be meeting some hard realities that come when you place politicians and bureaucrats above scientists and experts.

Politics are unpredictable.

In any event, this tempest in the OSTP pot is not over with.

Note: In yesterday’s post, I have corrected the date of the initial bill requiring OSTP to file a new assessment, which makes their submission late by about a week, as well.

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