Science Policy and the Obama Administration: Advice to a New President

author: Marc A. Kastner, Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 28, 2013,   recorded: November 2008,   views: 2211

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The mood of gloom has eased somewhat within the science community, with the advent of a new presidential administration, and Marc Kastner captures the mix of hopefulness and trepidation among his peers around the enormous challenges the nation faces in coming years.

Kastner describes four areas “in order of increasing difficulty” the new president must address:

The president’s first move should be to increase the prestige of science in government, by giving the science advisor a more important role, listening carefully to career scientists in government agencies, and encouraging rather than punishing them for speaking out.

Second, Kastner advises expanding basic research on energy and environment. The U.S. imports $700 billion worth of oil per year, placing the nation “in jeopardy economically and politically,” says Kastner. Clean energy is likely to be a huge industry, and if the U.S. is to lead worldwide, it must begin to master a cluster of technologies that together pose our best chance of beating climate change.

We need a huge infusion of R&D money in such thorny areas as: carbon sequestration (we don’t yet know if CO2 can be efficiently and safely injected into underground pore space); electrical storage, where we need a five-fold improvement in battery technology to produce an all-electric car that can run for 200 miles; solar energy, where current solar cells are made from materials that are too costly, and not yet efficient enough. While federal and private energy research has been declining, the International Energy Agency estimates the world will require $17 trillion dollars to stabilize CO2emissions between now and 2050.

The third order of business involves biology: Having teased apart the DNA molecule and mapped the genome, we now stand ready for a third revolution in life science, says Kastner. This will involve the convergence of biology with mathematics, physics and engineering. Says Kastner: “The gigantic amount of data being generated by rapid sequencing requires new approaches: biology needs theory for the first time, needs integrating ideas to explore information and come up with clarity.”

The final and perhaps toughest job involves stabilizing science funding. Over the past 20 years, math, physical science and engineering funding have remained flat. In the life sciences it doubled (partly due to 9/11), then declined. While “it’s wonderful to give more money to science,” rapid increases over short times have often been followed by sharp dips, creating major research disruptions. Plus, says Kastner, it’s unhealthy to fund one area and not the rest. “Different sciences reinforce each other and the scientific enterprise cannot do well if only one field is supported and the others are not.”

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