The real scandal behind billionaire Eric Schmidt paying for Biden’s science office

“Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has faced a backlash since Politico reported earlier this week that he indirectly funds and wields unusually heavy influence over an important White House office tasked with advising President Joe Biden’s administration on technical and scientific issues.

The ethical concerns surrounding this news are glaring: A tech billionaire with an obvious personal interest in shaping government tech policy is giving money to an independent government agency devoted to tech and science, albeit through his private philanthropic foundation.

The real scandal, however, is that a government office needed philanthropic aid to fund its work in the first place, creating an ethical quandary over potential conflicts of interest.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is responsible for advising the president on a vital and wide breadth of public policy — whether it’s “a people’s Bill of Rights for automated technologies” or the gargantuan effort of preparing for future pandemics. It also has a meager $5 million annual budget — which means it has to get creative to do its work.

“The use of staff from other federal agencies and the armed services, universities, and philanthropically funded nonprofits dates back five presidential administrations — but President Biden was the first to elevate the office to Cabinet level,” an OSTP spokesperson said in a statement to Recode.

According to the office, among the 127 people who currently work there, only 25 are OSTP employees. The remaining are a mix of temporary appointees from other federal agencies, as well as people from universities, science organizations, or fellowships that may be funded by philanthropy.”

“Both OSTP and Schmidt Futures maintain that their connection has been misconstrued as nefarious; they say this sort of partnership is par for the course.

In a statement, Schmidt Futures highlighted how the OSTP has been “chronically underfunded,” and said that it was proud to be among the “leading organizations” providing funding to OSTP. In other words, Schmidt Futures makes clear that it isn’t the only private organization to charitably provide much-needed monetary support to government agencies.”

““Outsiders are not subject to government ethics rules or the government’s transparency requirements,” Shaub continued. “They may put their own interests before the American people, and we have no way of knowing how that changes outcomes.”

It’s one thing for the public and private sectors to coordinate on and contribute to a project — it’s another when a government office accepts money from philanthropy that creates potential ethical conflicts. That signals a systematic underfunding of the public sector that all but guarantees some dependence on private interests, and accepting such money creates a problematic trade-off.

Speculating on the true motive behind Schmidt’s involvement in OSTP is almost beside the point. It seems inevitable that the money quietly flowing from him and his foundation to the office would apply pressure that favors Schmidt’s personal and business interests.”  

“Government is expected to be fairly transparent and accountable to the public, while the philanthropy world is often opaque and subject to the whims of private, ultra-wealthy individuals”

https://www.vox.com/recode/23001543/eric-schmidt-white-house-office-science-technology-policy-philanthropy-ethical-concerns

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