Volume 87 Issue 20 | pp. 36-38
Issue Date: May 18, 2009

Science Policy High

New science leaders and increased funding have policy wonks in a good mood
Department: Government & Policy

THE PROMISE OF significant new government funding for scientific research and of new leaders for federal science positions in the Obama Administration have produced a general euphoria in the nation's science policy community. How long that feeling might last depends on how effectively the new Administration can follow through on its promises.

Much of the feel-good mood was on display at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science's 34th Annual Forum on Science & Technology Policy, held on April 30 and May 1 in Washington, D.C. Just three days earlier, President Barack Obama spoke before the National Academy of Sciences, where he strongly stated his support for science and technology (C&EN, May 4, page 7). His speech provided an optimistic backdrop for this meeting of nearly 600 policymakers from government, universities, industry, and think tanks who were there to learn where science policy is headed during the next year.

Two members of the Obama science team weighed in with their visions of the future at the forum. John P. Holdren, presidential science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), told the conference that Obama is sincere in his belief that science and technology are needed to meet the nation's challenges for economic recovery and growth. And Energy Secretary Steven Chu talked about how climate change is driving the need for alternative energy technologies.

"The President's goal is to restore investment in science and technology so that it surpasses the level reached at the height of the space race" in the 1960s, Holdren said. It also includes ideas and funding to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Credit: NAS
Credit: NAS

Education was emphasized by Holdren, who said the nation must be attentive to the needs of its institutions, especially colleges and universities. Because of the highly technical nature of many policy issues today, "it is essential that we have a public sufficiently sophisticated that it can participate," he remarked.

Scientific integrity is another issue important to the President, Holdren said. "Obama has already instructed OSTP to produce new government guidelines for scientific integrity."

Trying to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions because of their impacts on global climate change is also a major theme of this Administration. "The biggest challenge in climate at this point is the policy challenge," Holdren told the forum. "We need to move to a stance where the U.S. is the leader in the world on this issue, and not a laggard."

Credit: AAAS
Credit: AAAS

Chu told conference attendees that the impacts of climate change are starting to sink in and that over the next 20 to 30 years the U.S. needs to move toward a carbon-constrained economy. This means more investment in technologies as diverse as wind turbines, nuclear energy, and electricity delivery, he said. "We cannot do it overnight, but if we start now, moving in that direction, we can take a leadership position in those technologies," Chu continued.

SPEAKING OF THE energy challenges facing the nation, Chu said that science and technology are the best ways to guarantee that we have a clean-energy future. He said one thing he has been doing since coming to DOE is trying to instill a new sense of accomplishment in the department's employees that seemed to be lacking: "Never in anyone's lifetime is there such an opportunity to shine. We now have a feeling that instead of a department that is afraid to make a mistake, we are a department that feels it can change the world. I'm optimistic that this feeling will grow."

Chu put forth a challenge to the scientists in the audience. Pointing to the increased funding that was given for research at the DOE's Office of Science under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, Chu said more science projects will be funded. To do this properly, he said the office will need to get the best reviewers possible for these projects. "If you and your colleagues get a call saying we want you to help review" these new projects, "it's very important that you step up to the plate," Chu stressed. He said that he wants the highest quality reviewers he can find.

The upbeat plans of the Administration, however, have to meet with the realities of the federal budget. By all accounts, government funding of research and technology is rising, despite the economic recession that has hit the nation. But budget analysts are wary about the future.

"In all my years in Washington, this year is unique," said Albert H. Teich, a long-time science policy analyst and director of science and policy programs for AAAS. The fact that the stimulus recovery act was passed before next year's budget was even introduced has made trying to figure out where R&D spending will go a challenge, he told the forum.

"Federal funding for research is seeing real increases in 2009 after four years of declines," Teich said. "And the stimulus provides unprecedented federal support for academic facilities and instrumentation and the federal labs." He also said that the grant proposal success rates at both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health will improve dramatically, at least for a little while.

"The recovery act reflects the Administration's priorities—innovation and competition, biomedical research, energy and climate change," Teich explained. And although science agency budgets all got decent increases for fiscal 2009 and may go higher in 2010, "this is not going to be a permanent thing," Teich warned. "It will be difficult to sustain these funding levels in the future."

Stanley Collender, an economist and managing director of the Washington, D.C., office of the public affairs agency Qorvis Communications, thinks that future increases in research funding will depend on when the U.S. economy starts to recover. "In my 35 years of watching the budget, I have never seen the President given blanket permission to raise the deficit," he noted. But by granting Obama a green light to increase spending dramatically, that is what Congress has given Obama, Collender contended. He said it looks as if Obama is expecting the economy to stay poor until next year and then to pick up rapidly. "That's a little optimistic," he added.

Obama will be allowed to continue the huge deficit spending until the economy picks up, Collender said, predicting further that the U.S. later "will switch into deficit reduction mode, and the government's willingness to spend on things like research is going to go down."

To prevent significant cuts in R&D funding, Collender told the AAAS forum that science needs to do a better job of public relations. He said that science has become "the poster child for pork-barrel spending."

"You do a great job of talking to yourselves," Collender continued. "Now you have to get out there and explain to reporters and the public what the values of scientific research are and the things you are expecting to learn. There is no understanding by the public of just how many jobs are involved in R&D. The public thinks that research funds only benefit the researcher."

ONE EFFORT under way to get a better understanding of the benefits of federally funded research is to develop a science of science policy (C&EN, May 4, page 40). This idea was first proposed by then-presidential science adviser John H. Marburger III at the 2005 AAAS Science & Technology Forum. Since then, an interagency working group was established to promote better data gathering and NSF began its own Science of Science & Innovation Policy (SciSIP) funding office.

"We were asked to answer the basic question of just what do we get from R&D," William J. Valdez told the forum. Valdez is cochair of the interagency working group and director of the Office of Workforce Development for Teachers & Scientists at DOE's Office of Science. He said the idea is to develop a more scientific method for making science funding decisions and to explain and justify the large federal investment in R&D.

"The system as we know it is not broken. Expert judgment in the form of peer review is a very good mechanism for making policy decisions and has worked well," Valdez said. "But there is an emerging community of science policymakers with the potential to provide more quantitative tools in the near future."

From NSF, Julia I. Lane told the forum audience of some interesting preliminary findings from SciSIP. Her program is funding ways to track research awards and researchers from the 17 federal agencies that support R&D in order to develop data structures and models to give policymakers the tools they need to predict the best outcomes for the government's investment.

One initial finding that has emerged is that the investments in "star" researchers have a bigger impact in terms of outcomes and results than can be found from supporting less well known principal investigators, Lane said. The implication is that more funding should go to these star scientists and that, at least in terms of important outcomes, federal investment in new and unknown researchers is of less value.

Irwin Feller, professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University, told forum attendees that questions on valuing research are ones that science policymakers have been asking for 50 years. "And the accumulated data since that time have not been very satisfying," he said.

One problem Feller noted is that science policymakers do not trust the econometric methods and models that are currently used by other professions to evaluate outcomes. Science policymakers "are very, very wary of the assumptions that go into these models," Feller said. "They all have their own methods, filters, and checks for making their decisions." He thinks that recent efforts, such as the research under way at NSF's SciSIP, will increase trust in these relationships.

Budget and policy worries, however, were not able to quell the feeling that science and technology holds a special place in the Obama Administration. The President's statement in his address before the joint session of Congress in February that he "will restore science to its rightful place" was cited several times by forum speakers as the sign of a new beginning for the relationship between the scientific community and government.

Susan Hockfield, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her presentation to the forum, spoke of the convergence of opportunities presented by the new Administration and summed up the sentiment of many at the meeting. "To capitalize fully on this moment's potential, we need to recognize its promise," she said, adding that the community also needs "to adapt our education and research strategies to capitalize on it and to build the understanding and support of those who set federal policy here in Washington."

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