PCAST Reviews Accomplishments, Looks to Future

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Publication date: 
25 October 1995

The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology
(PCAST) met on October 23-24 to take stock of their activities in
light of the current budget situation and its implications for
science and technology.  The committee reviewed its progress on a
number of fronts, and considered issues to focus on for its
remaining tenure.

In the past year, PCAST panels have studied a number of issues;
current efforts include the effects of a changing health care
system on biomedical research, international efforts on sustainable
development, the use of educational technologies, and the role of
the scientific community in preventing deadly conflict.
Communicating science to the public was considered as another
possible topic, but it was decided that the effort was too vast for
limited PCAST resources.  The committee agreed instead to support
existing programs, such as those of AAAS, to enhance the
understanding of science.

Another PCAST task force examined state-federal technology
partnerships.  Gary Bachula of the Commerce Department reported
that 49 states have technology partnership programs, and recognize
their value to the economy, jobs, and productivity, without the
ideological debates raging on Capitol Hill.  He noted that while
Congress has taken aim at NIST's Advanced Technology Program, a
companion program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnerships, fared
better because it had "a built-in constituency in the states."

The committee received an overview of the recent report on Human
Radiation Experiments (see FYI #148), and the resulting
establishment of a National Bioethics Advisory Commission.  PCAST
members were also apprised of a review of the major federal
laboratory complexes, and the Administration's renewed commitment
to the DOE weapons labs and science-based stewardship of the
nuclear weapons stockpile (see FYI #133).
Budget Director Alice Rivlin gave the committee a summary "from the
budget wars."  She stressed the Administration's theme that one of
the differences between the congressional and executive
budget-balancing plans is the amount of investment maintained in
science, technology and education.  Rivlin expressed hope that some
money could be shifted from DOD funding (for which Congress
provided $7 billion more than the Administration requested) to
other priorities. 

Committee members inquired about the "reinventing government"
initiative, and remarked that while some agencies were moving
rapidly to streamline management (NASA was specifically commended),
others continued to resist change or prolong studies of the issue.
Rivlin pointed out that NASA Administrator Dan Goldin "had a lot of
room to be a star" because he was working with a very redundant
system.  The next most likely place for management improvements,
she said, was the national labs.  She reported that plans were
currently underway to consolidate, reduce redundancies, and
privatize some labs "where appropriate."  Committee members cited
NSF as an example of minimal bureaucracy, where most of the funds
flowed directly to individual investigators.

Rivlin also reported that Congress would probably send its
reconciliation bill to the President within two weeks, and that he
would veto it if not dramatically changed.  Lionel Johns of OSTP
mentioned that the House-passed Omnibus Civilian Science
Authorization Act, H.R. 2405 (see FYI #150), might be incorporated
into the reconciliation package.  It was noted that in the White
House's response to the bill (see FYI #144), the portion relating
to U.S. participation in Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had
been interpreted by some within the physics community as
Administration opposition to the project.  Gerry Garvey of OSTP
assured the committee that the Administration supported
participation in the LHC, but opposed the bill language dictating
negotiating terms.

The discussion then turned to the health of the U.S. academic
research enterprise, and the question of how PCAST might address
this issue.  Committee members Charles Vest (president of MIT) and
Judith Rodin (president of the University of Pennsylvania) raised
a number of topical factors affecting research universities,
including new fields competing for research dollars; erosion of
federal funding; the appropriate number of research institutions;
the costs of R&D and measures of accountability; the numbers of
graduates produced, foreign students supported, and
underrepresented groups participating; the appropriateness of core
curricula and graduate training for the job market; and renewal of
infrastructure and major research facilities.

The committee discussed how higher education will look in the
future, when technologies will enable greater emphasis on
long-distance education and lifelong learning.  Rodin foresaw more
long-distance, networked collaborations among universities as tight
budgets forced cuts in departments and courses.  "If our role is to
advise the President on science and technology," Norman Augustine
of Lockheed Martin asserted, "I can hardly think of a more
important issue than the health of universities."  The committee
decided that, before their next meeting, a subgroup led by Rodin
and Vest would review the 1992 PCAST report on research
universities (see FYI #7, 1993), and plan to update it based on
more recent studies and current budget realities. 

The next PCAST meeting is scheduled for the end of March, 1996.

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