AAAS S&T Leadership Seminar Offers Real-World View of Policy-Making
Kathie L. Olsen, one of the highest-ranking White House science advisers, was standing before a room full of administrators, executives and professors on a recent Wednesday morning trying to explain the interaction between science and policy-making in the nation's capital.
The first slide in her PowerPoint presentation showed a schematic of a scientist's brain. "Much of the scientist's brain has been molded by the need for more funding," she quipped. "More is better." A few minutes later she showed a slide depicting the structure of science research at federal science agencies. Acronyms flashed across the room like an alphabetic light show NASA and NOAA, NAS and NSF, NIST and DOE.
"Our role, Olsen explained, "is to get all the federal science organizations holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'."
It was a moment of dry humor from the associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, better known to Beltway types as OSTP. But for the 28 participants in the first AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, it offered a telling insight into the complex and not always linear process of making national policy on subjects ranging from climate change to homeland security to space exploration.
Many of those enrolled in the seminar live and work far from Washington; they were executives and administrators in business, higher education and nongovernmental organizations. Others were personnel from foreign embassies in the U.S. capital. Many brought to the seminar a deep curiosity about how policy is made and about the directions science and technology policy may go as a result of the November elections.
"We didn't concentrate on telling them what the next four years are going to be like," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy at AAAS. "But that's certainly on people's minds and that certainly was discussed. I suspect that's one of the things that brought people to the seminar, and their questions tended to look at that. I think, though, that people wanted to learn about how the whole system worked, too."
That's what Susan Boone took away from it. "We got a down and dirty street-level view of how things happen," said Boone, deputy director of University Research Administration at the University of Chicago.
The Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy was designed to be a smaller, more concentrated version of the renowned 2 1/2-week orientation given every fall to AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows. The seminar, over the course of five days, gave those enrolled a crash course in the ways of science policy in Washington. And in the process, it dispelled most residual "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" views of politics and policy.
One day featured a lecture on the contrasting cultures of science and policy-making by Stephen D. Nelson, associate director of Science and Policy at AAAS and one of the main seminar organizers. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Teich, that used controversial issues like climate change and stem cell research to evaluate the hard reality of how policy is made.
In her presentation to the seminar attendees and AAAS staffers, Olsen, formerly chief scientist at NASA, sketched the evolution of domestic science policy over the last half century. The 1960s were the decade of the space race, she said. The '70s were dominated by gas shortages and energy needs. The 1980s and 1990s were focused on defense and related technology.
At a different presentation, AAAS Chief International Officer Shere Abbott traced the same evolution, but taking a more global perspective. U.S. science policy in the 1960s was focused on atomic energy, space research, the growing high-tech industries and cooperative science and technology engagement with foreign countries.
The 1970s, Abbott said, featured the landmark beginning of cooperative engagement with the Soviet Union and China on science and technology. The 1980s began an era of broad international cooperation and creating global agreements. And in the 1990s, she said, science may have fallen on hard times because the Cold War had ended, but at the dawn of the Internet age, scientists increasingly found that international cooperation and collaboration were essential.
Today, clearly, it is defense against terrorism that dominates the federal science and technology agenda. While billions in new funding are flowing toward research and development on security issues, experts say, the budgets at most other federal science agencies are feeling a squeeze. And, some seminar speakers said, the conflict between science and ideology is more stark now than at any time in recent history.
Jonathan Pershing, director of the Climate, Energy and Pollution Program
at the World Resources Institute, spoke on climate change at Teich's policy-making panel. Pershing offered a detailed presentation on the case for global warming and its current and potential impact, but in the end, he concluded that policy was to some extent detached from science.
"Climate change is real," he said in his PowerPoint presentation, and yet, "absent policy changes, its impacts will be significant." For the near term, Pershing predicted that politics, and not science, will govern U.S. policy, with industrial and energy interests having "enormous" influence on policy. But over the longer term, he predicted, science will hold sway.
In a later session, George Atkinson, science adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, lamented what he described as Washington's difficulty in incorporating science and technology information into the decision-making process. A cultural gap exists between science and engineering and the Department of State, he explained, and scientists and engineers have to find a way to engage and influence the bureaucracy, where policy is really made.
"Science has to inform statecraft," Atkinson said, "and statecraft has to facilitate science."
Abbott, appearing on a panel with Atkinson, suggested that the lack of strong scientific presence was felt as well in intergovernmental organizations. That, she said, has made it more difficult for science to inform policies at the international level. At the same time, she said, science and technology are one of the most powerful forces of worldwide economic growth and development, and they're crucial to shaping a 21st century strategy for sustainability.
"So we know it's important," Abbott said, "but we're still at the table trying to justify its importance. Either the foreign policy community doesn't get it, or we haven't sold it."
Among those who attended the seminar, some said they came away with a reinvigorated appreciation for the process of making policy and braced by the candid discussions of how power really works.
Jerry Baker, executive director of the American Society of Animal Science in Savoy, Ill., said he felt optimistic about the years ahead even though troubled by the lack of accountability for "earmarked" funds in the U.S. budget.
"Certainly the relationship between science and policy is complex," Baker said by email, "… but programs like the AAAS seminar has been a great program, helping me to gather new appreciation for this complex relationship. This program was also beneficial because the participants were from a diverse background and the exchange of ideas enhanced the opportunities to learn from others. The speakers were well-prepared and covered a broad array of topics that blended well to result in a great program."
Boone, at the University of Chicago, came away with a "sobering" view of the years ahead. Still, she said, the seminar was a positive experience. "The good news is that it also gave me a foothold on the prospect of a better understanding," she wrote by email. "No matter how crowded the playing field, there is room for more participation it seems in my view to be crying out for it and in fact, the obligation (and the feasibility) to be educated and involved was one of the strongest, albeit unstated, messages I left with."
The first seminar was funded in part by a grant from the William T. Golden Fund for Program Innovation, an internal AAAS fund. Clearly, the seminar has broad appeal the 15-19 November session quickly sold out. Teich said he and others at AAAS will evaluate the first seminar and decide whether to offer it again in the future.
Edward W. Lempinen
Barbara Rice and Kelly Gayden contributed to this report
3 January 2005