News: AAAS News & Notes
29 May 2009
Edited by Edward W. Lempinen
Though New Funding Fuels Hope, S&T Leaders See Challenges Ahead
The Challenge. White House science adviser John P. Holdren said energy, the environment, and the economy are inseparable.
The Research Agenda. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu described efforts to achieve paradigm-shifting energy breakthroughs.
An historic transition in Washington, D.C., has brought strong political support and new funding for research, but it also creates new responsibilities for scientists, engineers, and educators to take action on critical issues and to communicate the value of their work to the public, science leaders said at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.
U.S. President Barack Obama's commitment to increased research and development funding could renew the American innovation culture, yielding progress on climate and energy, public health, science education, and other fields, they said. John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, acknowledged that achieving Obama's goals "is going to be hard" given the economic crisis, but he said the effort is critical to global prosperity.
"Without energy there is no economy; without climate, there is no environment; and without economy and environment, there's no well-being," Holdren said during an address that opened the Forum. "So we had better figure out how to get this right."
Other speakers warned that pressures to cut the federal deficit could put R&D budget gains at risk by 2011, and they urged scientists and engineers to undertake a sustained effort to build public support. "You have to help us help the public understand that science is about creating jobs... and improving the quality of life," said U.S. Representative Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology.
The 34th annual AAAS Forum drew more than 600 leaders from U.S. and foreign governments, businesses, research centers, and universities to Washington on 30 April and 1 May. The Forum, organized by AAAS Science and Policy Programs, is the largest and most important annual science and technology policy conference in the United States.
Sessions focused on a range of issues, including the governance of emerging technologies; the links between climate change, energy sources, and public health; and the future of science journalism. MIT President Susan Hockfield described a revolution driven by the convergence of life sciences with physical and engineering sciences. In the annual William D. Carey Lecture, eminent American scientist and adviser Richard L. Garwin detailed the increasing importance of computer modeling and simulation in addressing health and energy issues. And top S&T officials from Canada, Japan, and the U.K. discussed innovation policy in their nations.
But almost every session included some discussion of policy and funding under the Obama administration.
Just days before the Forum, Obama announced that he would seek to push total U.S. R&D spending to 3% of gross domestic product, up from the current 2.66%. Al Teich, head of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS, said total federal R&D spending for 2009, including funding from the economic stimulus plan, would hit $172 billion—"a huge increase" over 2008. Much is destined for research outside the defense realm—in public health, climate, and energy.
Holdren, who served as the 2006 AAAS president, said Obama will move to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, cars and manufacturing. Next-generation nuclear energy also is of interest.
"We are still living in a world that's about 80% dependent on fossil fuels—[in] the United States, more than 85% dependent," Holdren said. "That's not going to change overnight, so we can't just say we're going to go immediately, all the way, to unconventional renewables. We have no way to do that. We have to fix in various ways the conventional options that we're using, as well."
He added: "You'll see the alternative energy supplies coming in somewhat more slowly, but ultimately growing to a very large level."
In a separate address to the Forum, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that "energy frontier research grant centers" are being established by the Department of Energy. He also pointed to the two-year, $400 million start-up budget for high-risk, high-reward initiatives under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.
Gordon envisioned ARPA-E as a lean, nimble agency that would identify a challenge, recruit a team of top research talent, and then press for "transformational" breakthroughs. "There's going to be things coming out of ARPA-E that we can't imagine now," he said.
U.S. Representative Brian Baird, a Washington state Democrat and a Ph.D. psychologist, urged that policymakers not overlook social sciences for tools to address climate and energy issues.
Changing consumer behavior is "the single most immediate thing we can do" to reduce energy consumption, said Baird, who chairs a House subcommittee on energy and environment. In fact, he said, U.S. energy consumption could be reduced as much as 20%—in a matter of months—by measures such as carpooling, using less air conditioning, and installing efficient appliances.
Advancing these ambitious new S&T initiatives is going to require the commitment of scientists and engineers nationwide, speakers told the Forum. Chu said hundreds of scientists and engineers would be needed to help review a surge of applications for new projects funded under the economic stimulus package. And from the Capitol to the grassroots, they said, researchers need to reach out and build a bond of common purpose with the public.
Visit www.aaas.org/spp/rd/forum for presentations and podcasts from the Forum.
China, U.S. Plan Projects In S&T Ethics Education
Commitment to Integrity. Tianjin University President Gong Ke described an ambitious four-year ethics course for undergraduates.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—A panel of influential science scholars and educators from China and the United States said they would explore a range of cooperative projects in ethics education following a workshop organized by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and AAAS.
After three days of presentations and discussions, Chinese and U.S. delegates identified several possible joint projects: Surveys on misconduct; exchanges on training ethics educators; a collection of case studies; and perhaps even a practical guidebook on ethics in science.
Li Jinghai, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and vice-chair of CAST's Commission on Ethics and Rights of Scientists and Engineers, said in a keynote address that scientists have an ethical obligation to make the innovation system more efficient so that it benefits more people. "We have a duty to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive effects [of scientific research]," Li said.
AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner stressed that building trust is crucial for U.S. and Chinese researchers because of their position as global leaders in addressing health, energy,climate, and other challenges. "We won't be taken seriously if we don't have credibility," said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. "And our credibility depends on our ability to behave at the highest level ethically."
The workshop, which opened on 27 April and was hosted by the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) and the Reuben H. Fleet
Science Center, was the latest engagement in the deepening relationship between the science and engineering communities in China and the United States. It was the outgrowth of a September 2007 trip to Beijing by Leshner and a AAAS-organized delegation for a workshop on research integrity. In other meetings during that visit, AAAS and Chinese science and engineering leaders agreed to joint publishing and education projects and pledged to seek additional collaboration.
In San Diego, nine Chinese science and education leaders, including several high-ranking CAST representatives and one university president, held detailed and candid talks with 14 U.S. colleagues, including some of the nation's leading scholars on science ethics and research integrity.
They quickly established common ground: While the roots of China's ethical practices date 2500 years to Confucius, and while science ethics in the United States have evolved over 200 years, both have found that misconduct has a host of causes, from lack of understanding to competition and fear of failure.
Melissa Anderson, director of the Post-Secondary Education Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, reported that her research found an estimated 24% of mid-career U.S. scientists per year engaged in questionable use of funds, with nearly as many cutting corners in their research practices.
Wang Chunfa, director-general of CAST's Department of Policy Studies and Publicity, cited a survey of 30,000 Chinese researchers in which 40% described misconduct as "very common"; over half reported they had never been educated about research ethics.
Though focus on U.S. ethics education has intensified since the 1970s, the rate of misconduct has not appreciably changed, said workshop co-organizer Michael Kalichman, director of the UCSD Research Ethics Program. The key question, then, is how to create an environment where researchers routinely discuss and evaluate ethical issues—and know how to respond to misconduct.
Tianjin University President Gong Ke described an ambitious four-year ethics course recently introduced for undergraduates at his institution, one of China's largest multidisciplinary engineering universities. But Chinese and U.S. educators agreed that the commitment varies widely in schools and disciplines.
A new steering committee comprised of experts from the two countries is being considered to guide future collaborations. The committee would develop joint projects such as collections of case studies and best practices in both countries, possibly assembled into a guidebook that could be used in education.
Science & Security
Experts Say Technology Can Enforce Test Ban Treaty
Technological advances have made it possible to zero in on small nuclear explosions around the globe, and experts at a AAAS briefing said that could persuade the United States to ratify a treaty banning nuclear tests.
When the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was last considered by the U.S. Senate in 1999, some lawmakers feared that nations could evade the treaty's detection network with small test explosions.
"While the United States raised legitimate concerns... about the ability to detect small nuclear tests around the world, we now have much more sensitive technology to allay those apprehensions," said Ola Dahlman, an expert with the Preparatory Commission of the CTBT.
The administration of President Barack Obama may urge the Senate to reconsider the treaty's ratification, "bringing the U.S. on board into the CTBT regime by 2010, or after the next (mid-term) elections," David Hafemeister, a visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association, said at the AAAS briefing.
Innovations in underground, underwater, and atmospheric vibration detection now make it possible to pinpoint explosions as small as .01 kiloton in certain parts of the world. Dahlman said improved atmospheric detection of noble gases such as xenon—"an earmark of a nuclear explosion"—was key to confirming a nuclear test in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in October 2006.
The 8 April briefing was co-sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy and the Center for Media and Security. Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director at the AAAS center, said the political debate over the test ban treaty has evolved along with the treaty's technical aspects.
Obama "has made it clear on several occasions that the treaty is in the interest of the United States and the world," said Tannenbaum. "And part of the president's case to Congress is going to be based on science and our ability to verify that nations will not be able to test without the world knowing."