First Meeting of the Obama Administration's PCAST

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Publication date: 
14 August 2009

On August 6, John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched the first meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under the new Administration. Across two days of meetings, PCAST discussed topics ranging from healthcare to science education to climate change.

In opening, Holdren explained that “PCAST is an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists, engineers, and innovators appointed by the President to augment the science and technology advice that he gets from inside the White House from cabinet departments and other federal agencies.” Holder added that, “…the Administration needs to reach out to the expertise and the capacity of the wider scientific communities at our universities, our national laboratories, our businesses, and our NGOs.” Concluding his remarks, Holden beamed, “…it really is a privilege to be working on these issues in an Administration that is led by a President who is so appreciative of the potential of science technology and innovation to help meet the great challenges that this country faces.”

After a round of introductions from the PCAST 21-member panel (PCAST’s roster can be accessed here), co-chairs Harold Varmus, former Director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, made brief welcoming remarks.

Day one was dedicated to presentations and discussions on healthcare, and energy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act put $20 billion toward integrating health information systems. David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology characterized the current level of technology use in hospitals as “appalling,” relating the statistic that just “10 percent of hospitals have meaningful electronic records.” It is hoped that digitizing and expanding the depth of medical records will reduce accidental drug interactions, and potentially provide important disease metrics.

The highlight of day one was PCAST’s discussion with Department of Energy Secretary Steve Chu. After an initial session in which the major energy and climate change issues facing the nation were discussed, Chu commented on a wide range of topics.

Chu first offered comments on draft PCAST reports. Regarding science education, Chu said, “… especially in education… STEM… lots of reports going on made numerous recommendations so focus on what’s the value added, whatever you do.” Chu went on to say that, “...the problems [in STEM education] are well defined…” but that the concern is in “… the analysis of what the most effective methods are, especially in teaching,” and whether isolated examples are “exportable.” Chu added that there has been “constant debate going on in many sectors for many decades.”

Turning his attention to “something [PCAST doesn’t] have direct control of , but needs more serious thinking,” Chu discussed “the emphasis of wall street analysts on what [energy technology] companies, the decisions they make.” Chu then related the story of the lithium ion battery created in the United States but commercialized by Japan-based technology and media conglomerate Sony. Chu asked rhetorically if the PCAST members could imagine a US utility company creating a new Bell Labs as is reportedly being done in China.

Regarding basic and applied defense research funding, Chu opined that “The really basic 6.1 funding, which by the way was more visionary, and more daring and willing to take risks than NSF funding for many decades…. That part the 6.1 funding is all but dried up in terms of that type of long term, visionary research.”

Critiquing his own Department, Chu recommended that PCAST look into DOE’s funding methods, “especially the applied areas.” Chu said, “The Office of Science has faults but it is as good overall as NSF, but the applied areas I have some questions about.” Saying that he had his own “strong views” on what DOE is doing wrong with applied research funding, Chu described a funding opportunity for solar energy that irked him. A $150 million competitively awarded program funded a project that planned to link a parabolic reflector to a multilayered semiconductor chip to concentrate sunlight. Chu said emphatically, “First, you know, hey, give me a break…. It was something we learned in high school.”

Chu asked again that PCAST review DOEs grant process saying, “There are other examples, quite frankly, since I’ve become secretary, but they are under review, so I can’t talk about those, this is a list where they are about to announce, and quite frankly… I have problems, so I need some ammunition from [PCAST].”

Holdren opened day two by addressing President Obama’s views on science and technology in the policy process and the future role of PCAST. Holdren said that the President is overwhelmingly supportive of, and interested in science, and that the scientific community must step forward to work with policy makers on areas of national interest.

Day two featured reports from the various PCAST subcommittees. The STEM Education Subcommittee reports that they are considering pursuing studies on how best to increase the number of STEM teachers, curriculum goals, national standards, IT-based classrooms, and the role of community colleges. The Innovation and Technology Subcommittee will focus on advanced manufacturing and advanced computing and communication for their potential economic gains. The Economic Development Subcommittee may look at where the government can make more effective infrastructure investments, and what are the best type of government standardization activities for networks. The International Security Subcommittee is interested in the potential hazards of space debris, issues related to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and related issues for weapons labs, and the national portfolio of S&T activities in support of Homeland Security. Finally, the Energy and Environment Subcommittee’s list of possible areas of research include carbon offsets, climate observations, energy R&D, and climate adaptation.

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