Science Agency Leaders discuss “Future of U.S. Science”

Pushpa Bhat, Fermilab

Pushpa Bhat speaking AAAS meeting

Future of U.S. Science panel at AAAS 2016 Meeting. February 12, 2016, Washington, DC.

President Obama’s Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren, the Undersecretary for Science and Energy Dr. Lynn Orr, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Dr. France Córdova, and NASA Administrator (Major General) Charles Bolden, spoke at a symposium on “Grand Visions for the Future of U.S. Science in a New Global Era”, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington D.C., in February 2016. I had the pleasure and privilege of organizing and moderating the symposium.

Opening the session with introductions to this distinguished panel of speakers, I posed the central questions for the symposium in my introductory remarks—Where do we want to see science in the United States in the coming decades, and how do we realize those grand visions? The U.S. was a strong global leader in science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, for most of the previous century. But now, in these early decades of the 21st century, when other regions of the world are ramping up their investments in science substantially, federal investment in science in the U.S. has stagnated for more than a decade. Federal policies and actions taken over the next decade will determine the trajectory of U.S. science and its scientific leadership for decades to come. We anticipate astounding advances in science and technology in the next couple of decades, presenting tremendous opportunities for U.S. leadership and entrepreneurship. What strategic planning is needed to bolster U.S. science and to exploit the opportunities for the U.S. to lead global partnerships in scientific and technological pursuits to address humanity’s great challenges?

Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), presented the view from the White House and said that Science, Technology & Innovation (ST&I) are central to meeting key challenges of economic growth, healthcare, clean energy and national security, as well as to “lifting the human spirit through discovery, invention, and expanded understanding.” He further noted that the U.S. ST&I matters also because it is a magnet for ST&I talent from abroad, and international cooperation in ST&I, facilitated by domestic strength in these domains, helps build stable bilateral and multilateral relations and institutions.

Citing the many studies and reports over the past decade by the National Academies, the National Research Council, the President’s Council of Science & Technology Advisors (PCAST), and other organizations on the status of the U.S. research enterprise and recommendations for the path forward, Holdren emphasized that the Obama administration has taken the advice of the ST&I community to an extraordinary degree, subject to constraints of budget. In his first inaugural address on January 20, 2009, the President had vowed to “restore science to its rightful place,” Holdren pointed out, and that in the Recovery Act of 2009 there was a boost of $100B in the S&T budget, of which $20B was for research. Holdren mentioned that the goal was to lift the total (public + private) R&D investment to ≥3% but this goal which was on track in 2009-10, was disrupted by the spending caps in 2011-15 due to the Budget Control Act. Then he briefly discussed the R&D budgets from FY15 and FY16, and the President’s budget for FY17. He talked about a number of S&T priorities and initiatives under President Obama in the past seven years and argued that, with his “vision” for science, the President has also “charted a practical path and walked the walk”.

NSF Director Córdova, spoke about the research programs at all scales of science that the NSF supports—the smallest scales studied through experimental particle physics to the cosmic scales in astronomy and astrophysics. She talked about many of the ground-based observatories and telescopes, about the discovery of gravitational waves (announced by the NSF-funded LIGO collaboration a day before this symposium), new cross-agency initiatives such as the Brain Initiative and the Food-Energy-Water Nexus, about global STEM education and increasing international partnerships.

Undersecretary Orr emphasized that fundamental scientific research is essential to our energy future, and that the Department of Energy (DOE) funds scientific research through ten National labs and three applied energy research labs. He talked about the neutrino science research at Fermilab and other basic science areas as well as exascale computing and its potential in simulations of complex systems and processes. He also talked about the Mission Innovation initiative launched by the President and 19 other world leaders with the goal of doubling the government investments in clean energy R&D over the next five years.

NASA Administrator Bolden made remarks on NASA’s ambitious program to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s and to asteroids before then. “We are planning with a long view in mind,” Bolden said, “we have developed a stepping stone approach that builds success successively on our work, and is focused, affordable, and sustainable.” He talked about how NASA’s satellites are studying our own planet providing valuable and critical information, and on studies on the International Space Station that is becoming a great platform for earth observation in addition to being an amazing resource for researchers with experiments on board. He mentioned that NASA has about 700 international agreements with more than 120 countries, most of them in science collaborations. Bolden said that the future of NASA science is strong. It is helping to uncover the secrets of the universe and it is helping us to create the future and that, as President Obama said, “we are pushing farther into the solar system not just to visit but to stay.”

A panel discussion on how to build national consensus on adequate investments in science, globalism, and international partnerships, and Q&A with the audience followed.

In response to the question on how we build consensus across the political spectrum on the importance of science research and adequate investments, Holdren said that there is a strong bi-partisan consensus that recognizes the importance of basic science research, and also, for example, biomedical research. He said, however, that we have to work very hard to restore a sense of bipartisan consensus on some of the other important propositions of science. Bolden commented that the key is “engagement” with Congress, and finding common ground, finding allies on both sides of the aisle. Orr noted that there is good evidence that the S&T research has made fundamental contributions to the U.S. economy and has helped us lead the world, and given us the competitive edge. “In the energy transitions that are ahead, trillions of dollars are going to flow; as long as our technology basis is strong and scientific underpinnings are strong, we have every shot at being the leader.” Córdova discussed how science is becoming entwined with our popular culture and how outside the beltway science is strongly supported by the public and that we need to bring that into the inside of the beltway.

In response to a question as to whether there is evidence that spending 3% of the GDP on R&D is the right amount, Holdren said that it is challenging to know how much is enough, but it has been disappointing that we have not reached the target of 3% for R&D investment in the U.S. and that there is clear empirical evidence that the current investment in S&T is inadequate. “NIH is able to fund only a third of the worthy projects,” Holdren said. If it were up to him, he said he would have spending be 4% of the GDP. Córdova mentioned that the grant success rate at the NSF for early career investigators is “much much lower” and expressed concern that as a consequence we might be losing some very good people. Orr said that the grant application success at ARPA is only about 2%. Holdren hoped that since the research and experimentations tax credit has now been made simpler and permanent, more investment could come from the private sector and help us reach the 3% goal.

On international partnerships, all panelists agreed that there are plenty of international collaborations and cooperative agreements, and activities that are going amazingly well. Holdren’s summary on this topic was, “people from around the world want to do more together in a collaborative and cooperative way. It is quite extraordinary.”

The agenda and slides from the session can be viewed at

Pushpa Bhat, a senior scientist at Fermilab, is a former Chair of the Forum on Physics & Society and currently serves as the Forum Councilor. She is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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