PCAST Meeting Highlights Administration’s Programs and Strategies

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Publication date: 
4 January 2010

“I think all of this bodes well for 2010." - OSTP Director John Holdren

Senior level Obama Administration officials briefed the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) during an all-day meeting on January 7.  The session was marked by insightful presentations and good exchanges between PCAST members and speakers who discussed the RD&D programs of the Department of Energy, health policy, environment activities of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Administration’s science, technology, and innovation policy.

John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, OSTP Director and PCAST Co-Chair, opened this third meeting of PCAST by listing the “extraordinary set of challenges” the administration confronted during its first year: a faltering economy, health care reform, two wars, terrorism, energy and climate. Despite these problems, the contributions that science offers “got a lot of attention from the administration,” Holdren said.  He described the continuing efforts of President Obama to highlight the importance of S&T, characterizing it as a “president-led focus” on the relevance of science, technology, and innovation and the investments that will be required to successfully address these challenges. Holdren highlighted significantly increased funding for S&T and education, key administration appointments, the launch of ARPA-E,  a new American Innovation Strategy, and outreach to other countries. Holdren also discussed policy changes on stem cell research, visas, and the administration’s Open Government Initiative.  He cited the “President’s personal commitment to science, technology and innovation,” and told PCAST members, “I think all of this bodes well for 2010."

The remainder of the meeting consisted of one hour segments on five  topics.  The PCAST website has a video webcast of each segment.  This FYI will review the presentations on DOE, DARPA, and the Department of Commerce.

Under Secretary of Energy Kristina Johnson discussed DOE’s Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Programs in a presentation entitled “Realizing a Clean-Energy Based Economy: A Path Forward.” Among her exhibits was one entitled “President’s Goals and Secretary’s Strategic Objectives” that listed the reduction of carbon emissions by 83 percent of 2005 levels by 2050; increased energy security; building a sustainable clean energy economy; the restoration of U.S. leadership in science, discovery, and innovation; and the reduction of nuclear dangers and environmental risks. The budget for the department’s energy programs is approximately $4.4 billion, of which 45 percent is in R&D.  She asked PCAST members to comment on whether the department had the right balance between programs, and the right mix within each program.  The department is conducting a strategic review of its fossil, nuclear, and renewable research programs.   To meet the President’s carbon emissions reduction goal, the current production of 85 percent carbon-based energy and 15 percent non-carbon based energy must be reversed by 2050.   While acknowledging that there will be “no silver bullet, “ Johnson predicted that it will be “fairly straight-forward” to reduce carbon emissions in the production of electricity.  Transportation will be “a much more difficult problem,” she said.   Johnson described how economic stimulus funding is being applied in DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs,  ARPA-E,  energy R&D, and demonstration projects.  She also discussed attracting top talent to applied programs, the DOE/NSF Re-Energyse program, and other outreach programs.  Johnson asked  PCAST members to assess if changes were needed in DOE’s clean energy technologies program.  Underlying many issues is whether the Department of Energy is allocating its funding correctly.

That afternoon Regina Dugan, Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) briefed PCAST members.  She described how the $3 billion agency operates at what she called the intersection of basic science and applications.  Primary among DARPA’s goals is preventing and avoiding technological surprise.  Dugan then discussed a $200 million a year DARPA manufacturing initiative aimed at reversing the decline in U.S. manufacturing, calling it essential to the nation’s long-term economic health and national security.  The agency is examining whether a fundamental change in how products are designed and produced would revitalize the U.S. manufacturing base.  Dugan described how DARPA is examining the rapid design and fabrication of semiconductors, and taking findings that would be synthesized, integrated, and applied to U.S. manufacturing practices, enabling massive growth in new industries.  PCAST members were intrigued by this idea, and while questions were raised about its applicability, the general consensus was that this approach was worth pursing.

The final presentation was by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on “Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy.”  Locke’s focus was on saving and creating American jobs,  strengthening the American economy, and maintaining a strong quality of life.  Speaking of “a broken innovation ecoystem,” Locke warned that the American economy is not innovating enough.  U.S. leadership in areas such as semiconductors, batteries, and robotics has been lost, there have been no net new jobs in the last decade, and wages have remained flat, he said.  Locke called for more funding for federal research, since private laboratories have largely been de-funded.  Locke emphasized the need to design and manufacture new products on an expedited basis, asking PCAST to investigate how that should be accomplished.  He ended his formal remarks as he had begun, saying that more needs to be done to put Americans back to work with good paying jobs.  Locke received many questions from PCAST members in areas ranging from increased funding for manufacturing programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, coordination with the Department of Energy, the importance of a new national energy policy, green energy, the stimulation of private research, patent reform legislation, international R&D in areas such as carbon sequestration, and strengthening STEM education.

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