The Challenge for the Obama Administration Science Team

By Crow, Michael M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Challenge for the Obama Administration Science Team


Crow, Michael M., Issues in Science and Technology


President Obama's choices for top government science positions have made a strong statement about the importance of science and technology (S & T) in our society. In choosing Nobel prize-winning physicist Stephen Chu for Secretary of Energy, marine biologist Jane Lubchenko to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and physicist and energy and arms control expert John Holdren to be his science advisor, Obama has assembled a team with not only impeccable technical credentials abut considerable policy and administrative savvy as well.

Yet the ability of science policy leaders to contribute to the nation will not depend on technical expertise, or even effective advocacy on behalf of S & T in the new administration. Far more important will be the team's capacity to ensure that our scientific enterprise improves our environment, enhances our energy security, prepares us for global health risks, and --perhaps most important--brings new insights to the complex challenges associated with maintaining and improving the quality of life across this crowded planet.

President Obama was elected on the promise of change, and in science policy, effective change means, above all, breaching the firewall between science and policy that compromises the nation's ability to turn new knowledge into social benefit. Failure to acknowledge the critical interactions between science and policy has contributed to a scientific enterprise whose capacity to generated knowledge is matched by its inability to make that knowledge useful or usable. Consider, as but one example, that scientists have been able to deliver skillful predictions of the paths and effects of hurricanes while having virtually no impact on the nation's hurricane preparedness, as we saw in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina forever changed our perceptions of extreme weather events. Or that 15 years and $30 billion of research on the climate system are matched by no discernible progress in preparing for or preventing climate change. Or that our marvelous biomedical research capacity, funded at $30 billion per year, is matched by a health care system whose cost, inequity, and performance rank near the bottom among affluent nations.

So even as we applaud our new national science policy leaders, we should also encourage the Obama administration to make the necessary transition from a campaign posture focused on countering political interference in science to a governing posture that connects the $150 billion U.S. public investment in S&T to our most urgent problems.

One key obstacle to strengthening this connection is a culture that values "pure" research above other types, as if some invisible hand will steer scientists' curiosity toward socially useful inquiries. There is no such hand. We invest in the research necessary to refine hurricane forecasts, yet we neglect to develop new knowledge to support populations living in vulnerable areas. We spend 20 years refining our fundamental understanding of Earth's climate while disinvesting in energy technology research. We spend billions each year on the molecular genetic causes of cancer while generally neglecting research on the behavior that can enhance cancer prevention. Overall, we act as if the intellectual goals of scientists are automatically and inevitably aligned with our most important goals as a society. They are not.

This is not about basic versus applied research; both are crucial, and in many cases the boundary between them is so fuzzy as to be meaningless. Rather, it is about the capacity of our research institutions to create knowledge that is as socially useful as it is scientifically meritorious, in areas as broad and complex as social justice, poverty alleviation, access to clean water, sustainable land use, and technological innovation. This challenge is therefore about institutional design; about designing knowledge-producing enterprises that understand and respond to their constituents.

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