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By Mitch Ambrose
President Biden named the membership of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) earlier this fall, with significant representation from the physical and biomedical sciences and in areas such as climate, energy, and information technology. Many of the members are leaders in the scientific community and industry, and several have held high-ranking positions in national laboratories or previous Democratic administrations
PCAST is reconstituted under every new president and consists of experts from outside the administration. Earlier in the year, Biden appointed Caltech bioengineer and Nobel Prize-winner Frances Arnold and MIT planetary geophysicist Maria Zuber as the co-chairs of his council, and Presidential Science Advisor Eric Lander serves ex officio as a third co-chair.
Among the new members is former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who trained as a physicist and oversaw the beginnings of the Pentagon’s push to accelerate the development and deployment of new defense technologies. Among the other Obama-era officials on the council include former astronaut and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathy Sullivan, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and former Agriculture Department Chief Scientist Cathie Woteki.
Other physicists on the council include National High Magnetic Field Lab Chief Scientist Laura Greene, an expert in quantum materials and the 2017 APS President, and Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley. Perlmutter won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work demonstrating the accelerating expansion of the universe.
In addition, University of Texas at Austin professor Bill Press is a physicist, though much of his current work is in computer science and computational biology. He previously served as vice chair of PCAST during the Obama administration, deputy director of Los Alamos National Lab, and chair of the JASON defense advisory panel.
Among the engineers on the council is Dan Arvizu, who directed the National Renewable Energy Lab from 2005 to 2015 and currently is chancellor of the New Mexico State University System. Others include Caltech aeronautical engineer John Dabiri, who specializes in wind energy and is currently chair of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics; Texas A&M University nuclear engineer Mark Adams, an expert in nuclear security; John Banovetz, chief technology officer of the chemical engineering company 3M; Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s chemical engineering department; and Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the engineering school at Princeton University.
Experts in climate change on the council include UC Berkeley carbon cycle scientist Inez Fung, Princeton University ecologist Steve Pacala, and Frances Colón, who served as deputy science adviser to the secretary of state during the Obama administration.
Among the remaining members, four are from the biomedical sector, four are from the information technology sector, two are social scientists, and one is a mathematician.
In a video announcing his appointments, Biden observed that his council is the “most diverse PCAST in history,” saying, “For the first time, immigrants and people of color, including Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, make up more than one third of its members.” He also noted it is the first time that the co-chairs are women and that half the council's members are women.
In another video featuring the three PCAST co-chairs, Zuber indicated the council’s agenda will be shaped by questions that Biden posed to Lander after selecting him as science adviser.
“The president wants us to look at what we’ve learned from the pandemic and how that can help us with other global challenges. He’s asked us to think about the challenges associated with climate change. He’s asked us how all Americans can benefit from discoveries in science and technology,” she remarked.
The author is the Director of FYI.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine