Science and Technology Leaders Offer Advice to the New Administration

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, March-April 2017 | Go to article overview

Science and Technology Leaders Offer Advice to the New Administration


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


International negotiations on climate change. Cyber threats. Illegal testing of nuclear weapons. The emergence of a new virus that threatens human life and health. A major national effort to combat cancer. The common thread among all these issues: The need for a fundamental understanding of the science and technology (S&T) involved in them. US President Donald Trump's list of cabinet nominees, as well as a number of his statements on the campaign trail, have raised questions in the scientific community about the new administration's willingness to accept scientific advice and even--particularly in the case of climate change--established scientific fact. So since the election, leading members of the American scientific community, in industry and academia, have lobbied hard for the inclusion of scientific viewpoints in the new administration.

Many would-be advisors begin by stressing the importance of science and technology for the new president. "S&T is connected to everything the president does," says Neal Lane, who served as Presidential Science Advisor to Bill Clinton. The president, he adds, should put a "laser focus" on science and technology early in his term of office. That laser focus should include making sure to include scientifically literate individuals in cabinet appointments. "It's important that scientists be distributed through the administration, as you never know where a crisis will occur," says Rush Holt, a physicist and former congressman who is now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "It's better to be up to speed on the science and technology when the crisis occurs, whether an emerging disease or an oil well blowout." Last year's nuclear deal with Iran exemplifies the value of deep scientific knowledge within the administration. As a number of commentators pointed out, energy secretary Ernest Moniz, a former MIT physics professor with a strong background in nuclear issues, conducted key negotiations with his Iranian equivalent that helped to seal the deal.

A report issued in late 2016 by Lane and colleagues at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy emphasizes the broad and mercurial nature of many impending issues, and the need for strong scientific support in dealing with them. "The next administration will need to address a number of policy challenges necessitating immediate S&T expertise, including emerging infectious diseases (such as Zika); chronic diseases impacting the future health of our aging population (such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease); environmental concerns (such as clean water and air quality); food security; and security threats to Americans (including terrorism, cyber-attacks, identity theft, and natural disasters). S&T alone will not solve these problems, but without new scientific knowledge and technological innovation, and sensible government policies, progress will be slow," the report asserts, and then connects the need for strong science policy to Trump's central campaign promises to support jobs and lift up the working class: "To ensure the future prosperity of all Americans--particularly those who have been left behind in recent decades--the [new] administration will be challenged to create new S&T-related policies and initiatives to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and training at all levels; support pathbreaking science and engineering research; and unleash the power of private sector innovations through partnerships with states, universities, national laboratories, and private industry."

For several decades the conservators of science and technology understanding in the United States federal government have been the Presidential Science Advisor and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that the advisor heads. "That's where foundational knowledge [involving science and technology] gets its start," says Lane. …

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