Brief Assessment of the Annual AAAS Science Policy Meeting

May 24, 2010

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) holds an annual policy meeting in Washington each May, to inform the interested public on current policies the government is pursuing or considering. Evaluations from the AAAS are also presented. The meeting is not exclusive, and all AAAS members should have received an invitation. Almost everyone is welcome. Invariably, several hundred people attend, but in practice the attendees include a number of people important in the policy community, and the speakers tend to be uniformly excellent. This review gives my personal impressions. It will be brief, selective, and cover only some of the talks, in particular, those I thought most relevant to the CFI OPP and a few others I thought of great national importance in general.

John Holdren is Presidential Science Advisor. He made three points I thought stood out.

1. Scientists are poor communicators with the general public. We need to do better.
2. President Obama thinks improving education is critical for America’s future, especially STEM education (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). STEM education should include more “hands on” lab work and more use of science-related computer games, to bring in more students earlier.
3. Energy and climate problems cannot be separated, as some have suggested. Issues of energy and climate comprised most of Holdren’s long summary of major national issues.

Linda Katchi is the current Chancellor of the University of California, Davis. She emphasized:

1. Changes in American public attitudes have downgraded education as a national priority in the minds of a growing community of people who blame everything they don’t like on “government.” This has had harmful effects on public education in particular.
2. An historical trend to the contrary demonstrates how broadly based education can help a society advance rapidly in many areas. The post-WW II GI Bill makes the point.

Douglas Elmendorf is Director of the Congressional Budget Office CBO). He noted:

1. The bad news first … America has lost eight million jobs in the recession. Had there been no recession, the CBO estimates we would have eleven million more jobs today. The good news, sort of … The CBO estimates a low two-percent inflation rate until ~ 2014, when they also predict the economy will return to “normal.”
2. If the tax cuts of the previous administration are not rescinded, the CBO estimates that the national debt will soon equal the GNP for an entire year.

Patrick Clemins is Director of the AAAS R&D; Budget and Policy Program.

1. The DOD spends approximately half of the federally funded R&D; budget, a fraction that increased under the previous administration. The total R&D; budget quoted was ~78 billion dollars.
2. Next to R&D; dollars going to industry and job-related R&D; (not defined in the talk), the largest absolute budget increase in the current administration is to the DOD.
3. The National Institute of Health (NIH) funds autism second only to cancer in its R&D; efforts. It was suggested that pharmaceutical companies may not have found good business reasons for research in this area, so government has stepped in.

The following three presentations were from the breakout session Beyond Cap-and-Trade: Other Climate Change Issues.

Alan Robock is Distinguished Professor of Climatology at Rutgers University.

1. Geoengineering can be loosely defined as an attempt to modify global climate by large-scale technical fixes that do not interfere with “business as usual.” Examples include seeding the clouds to increase the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), seeding the oceans with iron filings to promote phytoplankton growth, pumping huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the ocean depths or “sequestering” it underground, and putting up a large disk in space to partially interfere with sunlight reaching the Earth.
2. Global geoengineering solutions have an understandable popularity among those who seek high-tech fixes to global problems and have faith that one can always be found.
3. To date, the evidence on all these proposed fixes does not support that faith. Atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, biologists, space scientists and engineers, and other specialists have all presented evidence for disastrous consequences likely to flow from global implementation of the current proposals.

Paul Stern is Director of the Standing Committee on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change of the National Research Council ( a division of the National Academy of Sciences). He noted:

1. The climate change issue seems to have just taken a back seat to the energy issue, at least in the popular mind, while recently the reverse was true.
2. The climate skeptics seem to raise new public issues as soon as the old ones have been settled, an interesting comment on Climategate among other recent developments.

Kristie Ebi is Executive Director of the Technical Support Unit for Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She offered these observations:

1. Most economic planners tend to assume a stable climate. This is a serious mistake.
2. Much of the world outside the United Sates is unlikely to make a significant near-term effort to address climate change if the United States fails to do so.

Vernon Ehlers is the Representative from the 3rd Congressional District of Michigan. He is the Ranking Republican Member on the Subcommittee on Research and Technology, House Committee on Science and Technology. He received at this meeting the annual William Carey Award from the AAAS for his outstanding long record of supporting federal funding for research and development in America. Last year, the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy gave Representative Ehlers one of its public service awards, granted for the same reason. In receiving the AAAS award, Ehlers gave the annual address from the recipient to a large invited public audience. Some of his observations follow:

1. The gulf between research scientists and the public remains great, including in Congress, where there are currently only three physicists, and one will not be returning.
2. Two of the three mentioned are Ehlers himself and Rush Holt, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey. Both are Ph D physicists, and though from different political parties they have worked together closely. Holt is currently trying to refund the now defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). [Parenthetical Comment: Ehlers was formerly asked by Newt Gingerich to address many technically challenging issues. His demonstrated ability to work with two people of such disparate views as Holt and Gingerich suggests there are still some people in Washington able to cross ideological boundaries in the interest of common progress.]
3. Scientists need to become politically more involved with Congress. The workload of a typical Congressperson is staggering, and most have little time for penetrating science issues. Many of them have scientifically knowledgeable staffers, but even these people are run ragged by the Congressional schedule.

Patrick Gallagher is the 14th Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly known as the National Bureau of Standards. He said:

1. Seventy-five percent of the economic growth in the United States since WW II has been due to R&D.; [Parenthetical Comment: This is consistent with the latest economic modeling. When distinguished economist Robert Solow realized that the older models weren’t working because 70% of the driving force had been left out, he defined science-driven knowledge as a “residual,” popped it in post facto and got a much better fit. Then Paul Roemer, who was an even better mathematician, found a way to put “knowledge” into the model from the start – money for research can dry up in a depression – and got still better results … and then went off to work on another big problem. K-12 education.]
2. To the surprise of many, the United States has no official national industrial policy, because most of the decisions on what can be called industrial policy are made at the State level today, far more than most people realize.
3. NIST recognizes the need for a better “smart” national power grid as an important component in any reasonable energy/climate plan, and is working to help achieve this goal. To accomplish it, NIST works closely with Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
4. Nanotechnology is here to stay, and its importance is sure to grow. NIST is working to provide better ways to assess the interaction of nanotechnology products with the environments in which they will be found, including the human body. The goal is to define standards for the safe use of the anticipated new products.

Andrew Taylor is a Partner in Boston Consulting Group’s Chicago Office. He emphasized:

1. The United States is losing its innovative edge in the “D” of R&D.; That is, while we remain the world leader in many areas of advanced research, many other nations do better today in translating basic research into marketable products.
2. The National Science Foundation (NSF) may not be putting enough emphasis on STEM education in its otherwise commendable program to improve K-12 education.

John Fernandez is Assistant Secretary for Economic Development, US Department of Commerce.

1. The current political polarization in Washington is badly hurting the country. [Parenthetical Comment: Fernandez is an Obama appointee. That said, he laid much of the blame on the extreme political Right.]
2. Americans today are too risk aversive. A mentality of risk-avoidance always stifles innovation. We need more rational risk taking in R&D.;
3. To get more science-based knowledge into State legislatures, there should be year-long legislative fellowships for science Ph Ds to work with these bodies, like the AAAS sponsored Congressional fellowships.
4. More scientifically trained managers are needed in R&D.; Studies have shown that the best R&D; programs are managed by former or current scientists and engineers, not by MBAs.

Susan Hackwood is Executive Director of the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), which advises academic and research institutions in California on R&D; issues.

1. California has benefitted economically and culturally from a policy established a half century ago, to develop and support a world-class educational system at all levels.
2. This policy is under attack due to the present economic turndown and for other reasons. Sustaining this level of excellence depends on our willingness to support the most creative people and programs in an atmosphere that encourages innovation.

Steven Robinson is Special Assistant to the White House Domestic Policy Council. His message:

1. President Obama is serious about improving hands-on education, especially at the K-12 level, and he was disappointed there was not a larger volunteer turnout for National Lab Day, which – the speaker said – the president intends to promote vigorously in the future.
2. While the previous administration did a good job identifying low performance schools, it did too little to improve them. The current policy is to take the next step, for which a large budget increase has been provided for that purpose.

Stuart Jordan
Written May 18, 2010

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