OPINION: This article contains commentary which may reflect the author's opinion
According to a report published on Monday, the former head of Google denied channeling money through his foundation into the White House science office.
Eric Schmidt stepped down from his position as the CEO at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in 2020. He now serves on the boards of many tech companies, including several that deal with artificial intelligence (AI). AI policy is formulated and funding is directed toward the technology by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OTSP).
Rachel Wallace, the former OTSP general counsel, raised concerns over Schmidt’s influence repeatedly and believes that this was the source of the annoyance received from the OTSP’s former head Eric Lander, who resigned for bullying women in the office. Lander and Schmidt work closely together.
The Government Accountability Office is now representing Wallace after he filed a whistleblower complaint.
OTSP employees were indirectly paid by Schmidt according to Politico.
Two science office employees were paid salaries by Schmidt’s charity arm, Schmidt Futures, for working as unpaid consultants. After Lander’s resignation, the foundation paid the salary of the current chief of staff, Marc Aidinoff, who is now one of the most senior members of the shakeup.
Schmidt Futures representatives denied the allegations, asserting that there was never any undue influence on policies and that the government and the firm participated in long-term contracts to provide expertise and support without affecting taxpayers.
Schmidt Futures’ chief innovation officer, Tom Kalil, who was an OTSP official before joining Schmidt, also remained on the charity’s payroll during the time he was consulting unpaid for the charity. Following ethics complaints, he up and quit.
According to Politico, over a dozen members of the White House’s 140-person staff are either current or former Schmidt employees.
‘It’s telling that the downfall of the head of OSTP came not from the apparent ethics violations but from allegedly mistreating those who attempted to blow the whistle. The revolving door between government service and powerful private interests is one reason the American public’s trust in its government is at an all time low. But it looks as though, rather than reform, OSTP may have made it worse by creating a situation in which they replaced the revolving door with a breezeway, eliminating structural barriers between the two,’ according to Protect the Public’s Trust director Michael Chamberlain.
Based on emails shown to Politico, Wallace told Politico that the science office’s efforts to secure funding for Landers’ employees generated ‘significant’ ethics concerns, as Schmidt’s financial interests overlapped with those of the OTSP.
There has been a pattern of potential conflicts of interest with Schmidt and Schmidt Futures not only by Wallace but by numerous others on the OTSP’s legal team over the past year.
‘I and others on the legal team had been noticing a large number of staff with financial connections to Schmidt Futures and were increasingly concerned about the influence this organization was able to have through these individuals,’ Wallace stated.
In addition to Schmidt Futures fellowships, which pay for travel and accommodation for OTSP employees attending science conferences, Schmidt had financial influence over OTSP through his Schmidt Foundation. As advised by OTSP’s legal team, two employees withdrew from the fellowship program last summer.
Another two OTSP employees continued working at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biotech facility formerly headed by Lander and where Schmidt is a board member. They have since left OTSP. The salaries of two other scientists were paid by the Federation of American Scientists, to which Schmidt contributes.
Schmidt, whose wealth is estimated at $23 billion, and his wife Wendy gave $150 million to the Broad Institute soon after Lander was named to the OTSP leadership.
The federal science policy has long been a focus for Schmidt. While he hit the campaign trail in 2008 for President Obama, he mentioned that Google was ‘officially neutral’ and he was doing it personally.
According to an analysis by The Intercept and the Campaign for Accountability, Google representatives participated in White House conferences more than once a week during the Obama administration.
Schmidt’s spokesman responded with a lengthy statement for Politico refuting the claims in the article.
‘The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been chronically underfunded, and for decades, leading organizations have come together to provide funding and other support for OSTP. Schmidt Futures has proudly worked with this group in recent years and we have publicly acknowledged our contributions and support of private-public partnerships to support talent and advance scientific innovations for the betterment of society.
‘We were disappointed by the reporting in a recent article that misrepresented our relationship with OSTP. We have great respect for the media, and for the journalists who report stories, even those with which we may disagree.
‘However, we also believe in the media’s responsibility to report the facts, which we produced previously in this case, in order to provide the most complete and accurate picture.
‘The unsubstantiated thesis of the article is that there was undue influence over the department, which there was not. The following is a brief list that will provide a more complete picture of how science funding in the U.S. really works, and why the country requires much more of it:
‘The United States Government and the OSTP have used pooled philanthropic funding to ensure proper staffing across agencies for over 25 years.
‘Specifically, the OSTP has a long tradition of bringing in technical expertise and fellows to address the rapidly changing science and tech landscape, as the statute that created OSTP (1976) urges the Director to “utilize with their consent to the fullest extent possible the services, personnel, equipment, facilities, and information (including statistical information) of public and private agencies and organizations, and individuals, in order to avoid duplication of effort and expense.”
‘In 1971, Congress passed the bipartisan-supported Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) to enable “tours of duty” across government for subject matter experts from universities and non-profit organizations to provide fast and effective technical expertise and services for public benefit to the Federal Government, often at no cost to taxpayers. Schmidt Futures is always proud to answer the call to serve when our country needs us.
‘In 2021, the Federation of American Scientists established a “Talent Hub” to support fellowships in the federal government. Schmidt Futures is just one of 20 organizations or initiatives to contribute to the fund. This funding is administered by a neutral party to several agencies based on need and Schmidt Futures has no control over specific appointments, policies or agencies that the funding supports.
‘Schmidt Futures staff had no authority to make any policy decisions and did not do so through OSTP, and the story presents no evidence or examples to the contrary.
‘OSTP has always had and continues to retain full discretion and ownership over appointments, hires and policy decisions.’