AAAS Friday – Science and President Obama

Given similar themes I  decided to combine my write up about the panel of the proposed budget from President Obama and the plenary session by John Holdren, the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Both Kate and I made it to part of the session to discuss the budget as it applies to research and development, but also both missed the speaker from the president’s office. I arrived near the end of the presentation by Dahlia Sokolov from the House Committee on Science and Technology. As Kate said in her short post Sokolov described things as being “topsy turvy” several times, basically referring to there being a lot of uncertainty about how things will pan out. While things may seem bad with congess members who question the role of government for funding some types of research for ideological reasons, it is also difficult to draw clear partisan lines with local interests often overruling party affiliation when it comes to science. She did think the conflict between the parties is likely to lead to a government shutdown again next month when the continuing resolution expires, which was a prediction I heard from other people this weekend as well.

The next speaker was Howard Gobstein from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. Kate posted the quote calling the president’s proposal a “damn fine budget”, though she didn’t add that he also brought up the fact that there are enough constraints that it may be hard to actually get what he’s asking for. He then went into some detail about the two “looming” problems for Academia. The first was the need for reform in STEM education and said we should look forward to an upcoming report on undergraduate science education from President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology. The second issue is the lack of funding state governments are providing to public universities, leading him to ask whether public universities will be able to survive, which Kate has already gone into more detail in her post about the separate panel on the future of universities.

Next was Patrick Wilson who works on government affairs for the semiconductor industry organization. I was a little turned off by the start of his talk, which came off as more talking up the importance of the companies he represents, though it was effective at pointing out how large of an impact on the economy it has. The later parts of his talk dealt with how the U.S. is starting to have to compete with developing countries that are building up the science and technology infrastructure for the benefits of this kind of industry. Right now the main advantage we have right now considering it would cost about $1 billion more to build a fabrication plant here than in some other countries.

The final speaker was Manfred Horva from the Vienna University of Technology to discuss how U.S. science funding looks from the European perspective. He saw lots of similarities between what is happening here and in Europe, with the both wanting to emphasize the importance of innovation, education, energy, health, and infrastructure. While he joked that the Europeans disagreed with Obama wanting to out-innovate them, he did think these similarities provide a good opportunity for collaboration. One last interesting observation he made was that he found the large number of departments and agencies that are involved in science and technology to be somewhat confusing. Since there is sometimes overlap between the work these agencies are doing he wondering if there could be some form of “R&D market” working in the U.S. where there is competition for the most effective work. This was a description I haven’t seen before.

I’ll admit I came away from this panel feeling a bit down about the direction of federally funded research in the near future. People seemed pretty clear about the importance of science and technology in our society, but it’s not clear how well this is supported outside the people attending AAAS panels. Additionally the fact is even if people thought science funding should be our highest priority, the current economic situation would still make it difficult to fund.

On the other hand John Holdren struck a more positive tone with his plenary talk at the end of the day. It didn’t really cover major new ground, but was a good summary of some of the positive things that have been happening for science the last two years. Dr. Holdren also made a point to emphasize the fact that Obama seems to both recognize the importance of science and technology in our society as well as the fact that he has a personal interest in science as well.

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