Science in the New Administration

Micah Lowenthal

On March 21, 2013, FPS sponsored a session at the APS March meeting titled “Science in the New Administration.” The panel of speakers consisted of three administration officials, one professor who has led advisory activities for APS, and a member of the staff of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The talks were rich with details and so this summary only gives an overview of the session. Also, the last speaker requested that her remarks remain off the record, so this summary covers the first four talks.

The session was organized because every four years the March APS meeting is situated well to hear about the Administration’s plan for science policy in the coming four years. The speakers noted that this year it is difficult to talk about science policy because of (1) declining budgets, (2) budget uncertainties (with the looming sequester and failures to reach budget compromises), and (3) a general loss of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill coupled with a small but increasing hostility toward science among some members of Congress. An unprecedented problem for Administration officials speaking at a meeting in March was that the lack of a budget compromise meant that the President’s proposed FY14 budget request had not yet been released publicly, so they could not reveal that budget. Still, they were able to give substantive talks.

Gerald (Jerry) Blazey, assistant director for the physical sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), described President Obama’s support for science in the context of addressing societal problems and science’s role in our culture, where science manifests discovery. He described the role of OSTP in the government science enterprise coordinating interagency planning, including the National Science and Technology Council and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, as well as managing interagency policy committees.

Blazey also described the science and technology enterprise within the federal government, comprising $55 billion in sponsored research and development (R&D), roughly half of which is in the Department of Defense and roughly one quarter in the National Institutes of Health. Of particular interest to the APS-FPS audience is OSTP’s focus on climate change, innovation, energy, STEM education, infrastructure, and energy efficiency. Also, there are recent initiatives including the Presidential Innovation Fellows, (bringing in private innovators to work with government on key issues) and the Public Access and Open Data initiatives. There are also international cooperative efforts with China and Russia with science and education and science and technology foci. Blazey reiterated the President’s commitment to science and technology, pointing to the President’s words supporting science and technology in the State of the Union Address.

William (Bill) Brinkman began his talk by announcing that he would be finishing his service as director of the Office of Science in the Department of Energy in a few weeks. The Office of Science funds facilities, center-oriented research (including the Energy Frontier Research Centers), goal-driven research, and curiosity-driven research. He described 2013 as a challenging time for basic science, noting that the sequester would undermine some valuable science programs. He described the principles for prioritization within its mission. Among these were determinations of fields where the United States must be the leader or a collaborator with other countries and terminations of some facilities and research to keep the remaining programs at highly competitive levels. In these decisions, Brinkman said that he has sought involvement from the relevant scientific communities in thinking about how to prioritize.

Brinkman then listed ten current priorities for facilities, focusing on several areas of scientific progress, including light sources, such as the Advanced Photon Source; scientific user facilities, such as the Leadership Computing Facilities and NERSC; ITER; the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams; and the neutrino program. He emphasized the importance of supporting basic science in the context of growing scientific achievement and ambitious plans in Asia and Europe as U.S. research productivity has held steady. Brinkman closed by discussing climate change and clean energy R&D, explaining that the questions about climate change are not whether it is real, but when and how bad. This has motivated the need for clean energy and investment in new generating capacity (fossil vs. clean) was on a trend to reflect that shift in 2011 (investment in clean energy surpassing investment in fossil energy resources), but hydraulic fracturing changed that.

Robert Jaffe discussed science advice for the U.S. government, in particular the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), on which Jaffe serves as chair elect. Jaffe gave an overview of mechanisms for science advice in Washington, including the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, the National Research Council, the Congressional Research Service, and the Governmental Accountability Office, which is working to get more technology assessment capability. He noted that POPA fills a niche in that it conducts broad-based, high-quality, rapid-response studies that have real impact because of POPA’s implementation efforts. No other professional societies have POPA-like bodies, but POPA collaborates with other entities, including the AAAS, MRS, and CSIS.

POPA studies have addressed nuclear energy and disarmament, energy and environmental issues, and homeland security. Although they generally are self-initiated by POPA, recently POPA did a program review in response to a direct request from the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. A feature of POPA’s studies that is fairly unique is their extensive efforts in implementation, assisting members of Congress in drafting legislation and in one case working with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation to build support for the recommendations, giving political cover for politicians to support action. Upcoming studies include non-strategic nuclear weapons, license extension of nuclear power plants, and possibly the APS statement on climate change. Jaffe noted climate change and nuclear arms control as two major issues, among many others, on which physicists can contribute to the policy debate.

E. William (Bill) Colglazier is the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State. He runs an office of twelve people within the State Department. Science and technology are important to the State Department because technology can be disruptive but it can also enable leapfrogging in development (consider wireless phones in Africa). Science and technology are also very important to diplomacy: many countries when they meet with U.S. diplomats make science and technology in economic growth and public welfare the first issue they discuss. They want to increase collaboration with U.S. scientists and engineers. Colglazier noted that scientists outside of government are particularly effective for science diplomacy, and he particularly cited the efforts of the National Academy of Sciences, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their work with a broad range of countries, including some where the U.S. has difficult relations, such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Burma.

Overall, the session was informative and spirited, and it made connections between the physics community and the policy community in Washington. It is clear that the two communities benefit from each other’s work, and more communication between them can only help.

Micah Lowenthal
National Academy of Sciences

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.