Holdren on Administration’s S&T Policies

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Publication date: 
29 June 2012

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.