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By William Thomas
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) had stood dormant for more than 33 months when President Trump signed an executive order reconstituting it on October 22. Comprising eminent outside experts, the role of the council is to provide independent advice to the president and White House policymakers.
Every president has stood up their own version of the council since George H. W. Bush first established his in 1990. Before that, most other presidents employed analogous bodies, dating back to Dwight Eisenhower’s creation of the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite.
So far, Trump has named nine of an anticipated 16 members. Of them, three are academics, including Birgitta Whaley, director of the Quantum Information and Computation Center at the University of California Berkeley. Council members from industry include Dario Gil, the director of IBM Research, and A. N. Sreeram, the head of R&D at the Dow chemical company.
PCAST will be chaired solely by Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the council’s ex officio 17th member. Past iterations of the council have also drawn a co-chair from among its ordinary members, but that does not appear to be in the plans for the current version.
At PCAST’s first meeting on November 18, Droegemeier emphasized that, with only about a year remaining in the current presidential term, time is of the essence. He said the council will not produce detailed reports, as previous presidents’ councils have, but rather will focus on making more immediately “actionable” recommendations. He also said its efforts will focus on what he referred to as three “priority workstreams.”
The first workstream revolves around five “Industries of the Future” that OSTP identified earlier this year as priority R&D areas: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, 5G telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, and synthetic biology.
The White House has tasked the council with developing a “five-year plan” for accelerating the development of these industries that includes immediate, short-term recommendations. Droegemeier suggested the plan could focus on overcoming obstacles that inhibit collaboration across the academic, industrial, government, and nonprofit sectors of the US research enterprise. He characterized such an initiative as “much more than a pilot, it actually is an experiment at scale.”
A second workstream entails better leveraging federal laboratories to benefit the enterprise. At the meeting, conversation about the Industries of the Future dovetailed with discussion about how the labs could better advance them.
Speaking to the council, Department of Energy Office of Science Director Chris Fall emphasized that DOE’s national labs have substantial authority to build cross-sector relationships. He added there is already considerable interest in using the labs to build partnerships but noted that new initiatives can tax the capacity of the administrative officers responsible for implementing them.
The third workstream involves bolstering the US STEM workforce. Although the council did not decide how they would approach the issue, they discussed a variety of problems such as recruiting and retaining a diverse community in STEM fields, bolstering the skilled technical workforce, and upskilling workers to adapt to technological and economic change. They also broached the possibility of looking at US visa practices and other issues related to retaining foreign talent in the US.
Droegemeier said that, to elevate attention to issues affecting younger people, this version of PCAST will include for the first time a subcommittee comprising 20 individuals at the student, postdoctoral, and early-career levels.
PCAST has tentatively scheduled its next in-person meeting for February 2020.
The author is the Senior Science Policy Analyst at FYI.
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