President's Science and Technology Advisors Meet
One PCAST panel, chaired by MIT President Charles Vest, recently addressed the field of nanotechnology. Presidential science advisor Neal Lane, co-chair of PCAST, noted that as the Administration prepares its FY 2001 budget, it is "looking very hard at" the government's role in this field. Vest reported a strong consensus that this is "the right moment in time to initiate and sustain a federal effort" in nanotechnology R&D. His panel found "a real likelihood...that it will lead ultimately to profoundly important new technologies." The panel recommended that a federal nanotechnology effort be supported.
A panel chaired by Peter Raven, Engelmann Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, reviewed a National Science Board (NSB) report on environmental R&D within NSF. While Raven's panel endorsed the NSB's recommendations for a significant funding increase (from $600 million now to $1.6 billion in five years) and increased interdisciplinary research on environmental issues at NSF, the PCAST panel called for a broader review across the entire federal portfolio of environmental research efforts.
David Hamburg, Professor Emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation, discussed actions of PCAST's education panel. The panel has been successful in catalyzing interdisciplinary and cross-agency research efforts, as demonstrated by the recently-established Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI) among NSF, NIH and the Education Department. Hamburg said he was "really struck [by the] remarkable improvement" in interagency cooperation. The panel also seeks to "get research on human learning to the same quality as research on human health." Hamburg was pleased that the "methodological rigor [of the IERI grants] stands out above most of the past work."
The national security panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, addressed information systems security. Given society's increasing dependence on them, Augustine stated, information systems are "brittle, vulnerable to interference.... While all [sectors] have a stake in the continued functioning of the systems," he said, "no one individual or organization has the ability to ensure [their] continued viability." The government should play a leadership role, he said, in bringing interested parties together, coordinating efforts, and providing seed money. He reported that President Clinton agreed with the panel's recommendation and has set aside $2 million for planning purposes.
The first invited speaker was Frank Loy, Under Secretary for Global Affairs at the State Department. He spoke on utilizing scientific and technical expertise in the development of foreign policy. His remarks will be highlighted in FYI #172.
Former NSF Director Erich Bloch (now with the Council on Competitiveness) and Frank Press, former Presidential Science Advisor and former President of the National Academy of Sciences, gave their views on issues that will confront the R&D community in the 21st century. "It's difficult to point out challenges to the R&D enterprise when the economy is in good shape," Bloch noted. "We must be doing something right!" The concerns and opportunities he raised included the shortage of skilled workers and related issues of immigration and poor pre-college education; global economic competition due to the rapid diffusion of technology; the dramatic decline in the federal share of R&D as a percent of GDP; the R&D tax credit and questions of its utility to small companies and start-ups; the continuation of corporate memory in science policy across the change of Administration; the complexity and difficulty of collaboration among public and private sectors; and the still-untapped potential to exploit the Internet for education, training and research.
Press led off with the question, "How much money is enough for science?" and answered with the NAS recommendation that the U.S. maintain world leadership in some key fields and operate at world-class levels in most other fields. He expressed concern over the disparity in funding between the biomedical and physical science fields, and urged a more coherent decision-making process for R&D funding. Press questioned whether trends in university- industry cooperation would change the nature of universities, and urged more professional respect for post-docs. He commended trends in data archiving policies which make available to any scientist, after some time delay, the data from large, federally- funded research projects.
Vest defended industry funding of university research, and repeated complaints heard from researchers that federal funding is becoming too risk-averse. Press replied that he was not criticizing the trend, but warning of its potential ramifications. Bloch suggested that federal funding agencies set aside a small percentage of funds for risky research outside the peer-review process. Lane (like Bloch a former NSF Director) noted that it is largely reliance on peer review which protects NSF from congressional earmarking.
Lane remarked that the OSTP staff was "working very hard" on the FY 2001 budget in a bipartisan spirit, and attempting to address issues of "balance and priority." OSTP Assistant Director for Technology Duncan Moore reported that OSTP, seeking technology issues to address in the last year of the Clinton Administration and look to for the future, recently held a Summit on Innovation. Trade policy, peer review, antitrust law, standards, the talent pool, unification of research policies across the federal government, intellectual property, and use of the Internet were all raised as topics. Moore said OSTP intends, by next spring, to develop both short- and long-term recommendations for addressing some of these issues.
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics