The agenda for the November 14 meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was wide-ranging, with upbeat briefings on NASA science, corporate investments in the BRAIN Initiative, DARPA, and the federal government’s response to Ebola. PCAST is co-chaired by OSTP Director John Holdren and Eric Lander, President and Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
PCAST members received an overview about NASA’s space science programs from John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate. He explained that the directorate receives approximately $5 billion annually. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides about $2 billion for science, with an additional several hundred million dollars from the space station account. Grunsfeld stressed that the programs were “one interconnected science enterprise” with an expansive research portfolio consisting of 97 unique missions and 123 space craft. International partnerships support 99 percent of these missions said Grunsfeld.
The search for life on other planets is a major driver of the agency’s programs. Grunsfeld described current and future Mars missions, including two in 2016 and 2018 with the European Space Agency. He also discussed how NASA was in the pre-planning stage for a mission in the 2020s to Europa to investigate whether this moon of Jupiter has conditions that could support life. Grunsfeld noted that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will become the chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee in the new Congress, replacing retiring Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA). Grunsfeld said Culberson, “is passionate” about investigations of Europa. Grunsfeld also spoke about NASA’s programs to characterize dark energy, remarking that it was “a pretty exciting time to be a physicist.” The one hour briefing, which included discussion of the agency’s other science missions and programs, is available here.
PCAST members then heard from three speakers about the Administration’s “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” (BRAIN) Initiative. Thomas Baer, Executive Director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center and the Steering Committee Chair of the National Photonics Initiative was joined by Kris Famm of GlaxoSmithKline and Robert Wells of General Electric. Wells discussed technologies and research strategies to increase understanding about the circuitry of the brain. This research, supported by the BRAIN Initiative, has profound implications for battlefield and other brain injuries and chronic disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Famm outlined ongoing research in therapeutic interventions in the brain and nervous system to control neurological signals. Baer described light sheet microscopy in mapping brain dynamics, and the vital role of industry in the development of instrumentation. He also discussed how photonic research has enabled advances in optogenectics and retinal implants. Questions after the presentations touched on ethics, the development of appropriate policies, and the importance of multidisciplinary research. A video of this presentation is here.
DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar described her agency’s efforts to avoid technological surprise, while developing such surprises in America’s military systems. The agency has 200 employees, focusing on making early pivotal investments in promising new areas. Among DARPA’s challenges are the rapidity of technological change, and multiple and diverse threats to U.S. security. Among these threats are linkages between global criminal and terrorist elements. Prabhakar described DARPA research to reduce the complexity and cost of military systems, information technology, entry into space, cyber-security, the control of infectious diseases, and neurotechnologies. A video of this presentation is here.
The final presentation was a brief discussion by Eric Lander about the Administration’s efforts to combat Ebola, summarizing an October 23 meeting between President Obama and PCAST members. Lander characterized these efforts as “remarkable” as he outlined the leadership role the U.S. has played along several fronts such as in the development and production of therapeutics and vaccines, and procedures for the protection of the U.S. Lander discussed the importance of the lessons learned from this event to prepare for the next outbreak of a disease. A video of this eight minute presentation is here.
The next meeting of PCAST is scheduled for January 9; an agenda has not been released.