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Obama Remains Committed to Science Investment, Adviser John P. Holdren Tells AAAS Forum

U.S. President Barack Obama is committed to investment in science, and will pursue a number of cutting-edge initiatives focused on long-term innovation and economic productivity, his top science adviser said Apr. 26.

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U.S. President Barack Obama is committed to investment in science, and will pursue a number of cutting-edge initiatives focused on long-term innovation and economic productivity, his top science adviser said yesterday (Apr. 26).

Obama’s plan is certain to be tested in budget conflicts with Congress in the months ahead. But John P. Holdren, the White House science and technology adviser, said the president believes continued investments in research and development are crucial, especially in a time of economic stress.

The president believes that “investments in research, in infrastructure related to science, technology, and innovation, and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education are not the places to cut back,” Holdren told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Forum on Science and Technology Policy. “We need to maintain those investments... in order to build a basis for our ongoing economic prosperity, for our national security, for our environmental quality, and for our quality of life.”

In a 25-minute address and in a public conversation with AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, Holdren ranged from manufacturing policy to “big data” computing, and offered a candid assessment of the administration’s disappointments in research spending, space exploration, and climate change. And he returned repeatedly to an issue that Obama and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) consider a top priority: science education from kindergarten through college.

The 37th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy convened in Washington, D.C., with more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, educators, and journalists attending an in-depth, two-day survey of current issues.

This year’s Forum, organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs, covered the policy landscape for start-up tech firms, human research subjects, and new insights in voter psychology. But the twin challenges of U.S. budget stress and political gridlock were a central theme, with sessions exploring the potential impact of massive R&D budget cuts and the need to reform a dysfunctional budget-making process.

“I can’t imagine a time in history where discussions like the discussion we’re about to have here could have been more important or more timely,” said Leshner, the executive publisher of Science, said in introducing Holdren. “There is not an issue of modern life that does not have a science or technology component to it—as a cause, or as a cure.”

Holdren is the assistant to the president for science and technology, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and co-chair of PCAST. Before taking those posts in 2009, he had established a reputation as one of the nation’s most influential scholars on climate, energy, and nuclear non-proliferation efforts. He served as AAAS president in 2007 and as chairman in 2008.

By recent tradition, the president’s science adviser delivers the opening address at the Forum, and in his 50 minutes on stage, Holdren steered clear of partisan analysis and focused on Obama’s major science themes. Among them:

  • The National Bioeconomy Blueprint: Formally announced later on Thursday, the blueprint is an R&D program for leveraging advances in biotechnology, including food crops resistant to heat and drought, advanced biofuels that can be produced from carbon dioxide and water, and sustainable bio-based materials that can replace petroleum-based materials.
  • Advanced manufacturing: R&D for new-generation manufacturing would get $2.2 billion in the proposed 2013 budget, with much of that matched by private sector investment. The research would be focused in part on the National Robotics Initiative and the Materials Genome Initiative; and
  • “Big data” computing: Several federal agencies recently committed to spending more than $200 million on R&D for advances in computing that can organize and distill “big data.” Big data is the tsunami of digital information generated by modern life, from electricity usage to social networks to study of the human genome. “We’ve got to get better at managing these data and manipulating them to derive insights,” Holdren said. “We believe that there is enormous potential in this domain.”

In his discussion with Leshner, Holdren credited business support as important to the progress of such initiatives. “The private sector has figured out, as the government has figured out, that we are stronger, more capable, and more effective working together than working separately,” he said.

In that discussion, and in his talk and in answering questions from the audience, Holdren offered a sometimes passionate argument for the “continuing centrality” of efforts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

In an era when many crucial public policy issues have a science component, broad science literacy is crucial for the health of democracy, Holdren said.

It’s also crucial for developing “the technologically savvy workforce that the industries of the 21st century require,” he added. “Despite the current high unemployment rate, there are many jobs going begging in the high technology sector because companies cannot find the trained workers that they need.”

A key concern—and a trigger for action—is the fact that fewer than 40% of students who enroll in college or university intending to major in STEM fields actually get a degree in those fields. That problem, and its causes, were one focus of a PCAST report issued in February, “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

A key challenge, Holdren told the AAAS Forum, is the “math gap.”

“Students on the whole enter college insufficiently prepared in mathematics to survive and flourish in the science and engineering courses, not to mention mathematics courses,” he explained. “They find them too hard. It’s not because they’re not smart enough—it’s because they haven’t been well-enough prepared.”

Another problem, he said, is that science, engineering, and math classes in the first two years of college feature teaching that is “often routine, rote, boring, and stultifying.” Research shows that hands-on, inquiry-based approaches give students more direct involvement—and more interest—in learning.

Thus, Holdren said, success in college is directly linked to preparation received from kindergarten through high school. And the success that develops in a child’s early years is linked to one critically important factor: inspiration. That’s a central topic of PCAST’s 2010 report, “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education for America’s Future.”

When Leshner asked about science policy disappointments during Obama’s first term, Holdren offered a thoughtful assessment. While R&D spending has fared well compared to other sectors of the budget, he said, “we have had to make some very difficult choices.”

For example, plans to double the budgets within a decade at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and laboratories at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have been slowed. Similarly, he said, the administration hasn’t been able to increase funding as much as desired for the National Institutes of Health.

Holdren also expressed disappointment with progress on addressing climate change. The administration has successfully advanced a number of measures—for example, improving fuel efficiency and emissions standards. But, he said, congressional opposition has blocked more comprehensive measures.

And, he said, the decision to phase out the Space Shuttle, initiated under President George W. Bush, was “painful” but necessary. It has allowed Obama to begin shifting some routine space jobs to the private sector, and to begin developing a successor to the shuttle and new heavy-launch technology.

But NASA has “an enormously important array of missions” beyond space flight, he said, including astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, and earth observation. Overall, Holdren said, “there’s still not enough money in that pot... I wish we could’ve expanded the NASA budget more rapidly, and so does the president.”

As for the future of science initiatives and future R&D funding, Holdren cited a factor that appears, at first, to be far from the realm of economics and politics: storytelling.

“It’s one thing to... tell people that science, technology and innovation have been responsible for more than half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years,” he said. “But... NSF grants to two Stanford students, and how that led to the formation of a company than now employs 30,000 people and generates $64 billion a year in revenue—that’s Google.”

Such concrete stories will bring home to people how science works, and how public investment yields public benefits. “We have to not just do the work,” Holdren said. “We have to tell our stories.”