The June 20 hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee was, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) declared, called “to focus primarily on oversight of OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy] since it was created in statute. In addition to reviewing OSTP’s responsibilities, operations, and management, we will also look at its function in shaping our Nation’s policies.”
Not surprisingly, with tensions running high throughout the Capitol, there were few questions during this hearing on OSTP’s structure. Committee members were more interested in the Administration’s policies, with the tone of the questions addressed to OSTP Director John Holdren reflecting from what side of the dais they were asked.
“In your dual role as the President’s Science Advisor and as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, you have the President’s ear, and as such, you have a real, far-reaching influence on this Administration’s direction in science and technology,” Hall told Holdren, the sole witness at this almost two-hour hearing. Among Hall’s concerns were “an unprecedented emphasis on clean energy at the expense of other priorities to a larger focus on applied research at the expense of basic scientific research to the lack of a clearly defined and compelling long-term mission for human space flight.” He expressed doubt that the Administration’s energy policies would benefit the American people.
Holdren replied by describing the Administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy and how “solid science” was used in formulating regulations. Oil imports have declined, he said. Other Republican members criticized the Department of Energy’s focus on light water nuclear reactor R&D, OSTP’s discussions with Chinese officials (with Holdren responding “we are in complete compliance with current law”), the definition of “green jobs,” and the economic impacts of a mandated clean energy standard.
Questions from the committee’s Democrats differed in tone. When asked how the U.S. ranks in science, Holdren replied that America continues to lead the world in science, engineering, and technology, but is “in the middle of the pack” in STEM education. Better strategies must be developed to commercialize scientific discoveries, he said. In answer to another question, Holdren said he was inspired by the interest of universities and corporations in strengthening the U.S. scientific enterprise, including the protection of basic research, improving STEM education, and developing the future STEM workforce.
Of particular interest to physics community were Holdren’s statements on planetary exploration, high energy physics, inertial confinement fusion, rare earth and other energy critical materials, management issues at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and STEM education.
Planetary Exploration: “The Mars program remains robust,” Holdren assured the committee. Regarding proposed 2016 and 2018 European missions to Mars, he said “there was no way, under foreseeable budgets for NASA” to participate. Describing ongoing missions to seven of the planets, Holdren predicted continued U.S. leadership in planetary exploration.
High Energy Physics: Responding to questions about the future of U.S. high energy physics research, Holdren spoke of the $800 million request in FY 2013 for high energy and related physics research that includes several new initiatives. He also described a DOE planning process for the development of new facilities at Fermilab, and expressed optimism about its results. “We are not giving up on high energy physics” he told the committee, adding that funding constraints must be factored into any decision.
Inertial Confinement Fusion: Holdren said he shares Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s view that fusion should remain a goal, calling the National Ignition Facility “a national resource.” Holdren said it had the potential to achieve ignition, and that he remains committed to overcoming obstacles. “We remain committed to the use of that facility” for research on ignition and other areas, he explained.
Rare Earth and Other Critical Materials: When asked what the U.S. is doing to overcome a “distinct disadvantage” regarding these materials, Holdren described the activities of several working groups.
NNSA Management: What is being done to repair distrust between NNSA and the weapons labs, Holdren was asked. “We are determined to fix that,” he said, explaining that Secretary Chu and NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino realize there is a problem. Holdren has visited Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, and will also travel to Sandia National Laboratory.
STEM Education: In all, $3 billion was requested for STEM education activities in FY 2013, Holdren said, a 2.6 percent increase over this year. Considerable efforts are underway on K-12 teacher effectiveness and preparation, with the goal of 100,000 well-trained STEM teachers in the next decade. Also being reviewed are programs to close the math gap and to increase teacher effectiveness for university students, both leading causes of student disinterest in science. The Administration is now in the late stages of a government-wide STEM education program inventory, and will be releasing a strategic plan.