AAAS Leadership Seminar Offers The Insiders’
View of S&T Policy
Howard McCurdy at the S & T Leadership Seminar.
Some of the most influential U.S. experts on global warming, stem cell
research and other critical science and technology issues offered detailed
insights into the challenges confronting policymakers during a recent
The second AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy brought
more than 30 participants from a range of fields to Washington, D.C.,
where they heard candid analysis from some of the nation’s foremost
experts on S&T policy and policy-making. Afterward, several said they
came away with clearer understanding of just how messy the process can
“I used to think that the developmental biology process of conception
through birth was the biggest miracle. Now I know that it's getting legislation
made in the United States,” said Holly Falk-Krzesinski, executive
director of the Office for Research Coordination at Northwestern University
in Evanston, Ill.
“It’s very gratifying to work with people such as the participants
in this seminar,” said Al Teich, director of Science & Policy
at AAAS and organizer of the event. “They are very bright, experienced
in their technical areas, and highly motivated to learn as much as they
can about the policy process in the limited time they have available.
Their incisive questions and comments let the speakers know that their
time was well-spent.”
The leadership seminar is geared for professionals who could benefit
from a working knowledge of U.S. science and technology policy; it gives
them a crash course in the workings of the White House, Capitol Hill,
budget-making, lobbying and the federal science bureaucracy. The seminar
is modeled after the acclaimed two-week orientation program that AAAS
provides each autumn for its new S&T Policy Fellows, but distills
the material into 4 1/2 days.
Enrolled in the seminar this year were 33 people who work in fields ranging
from health care and veterinary medicine to space science, private industry
and the Washington-based foreign diplomatic corps.
In the opening presentation, they heard a frank, non-partisan state of
the union message from author and analyst Thomas
Mann, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution.
Mann gave them a tour of political landscape that has been raked and
scoured by years of partisan warfare. Clearly, he said, voter disenchantment
with the administration of President George W. Bush is the defining characteristic
of the moment. With war and allegations of corruption dominating the news
media, bi-partisanship has almost completely broken down. Even Congressional
Republicans, known in recent years for their unity, are fracturing, he
With both parties playing to their base, there are signs of “tribalism”
among voters, he said. With that has come “the decline of the American
center.” The results are evident in the controversial Medicare prescription
drug bill. While it may have been born of a good impulse, he said, the
incessant battle for political advantage and the lack of checks and balances
in Congress and the White House left the measure deeply flawed and far
more expensive than expected.
On S&T issues, Mann said, the White House and the majority party
in Congress have shown “a lack of urgency.” Critical, complex
issues such as climate change, stem-cell research, euthanasia and evolution
often are transformed by the hyper-partisan climate into simple black-and-white,
“The source of change, if it is to come, may have to come from
outside the political system… possibly a candidate who could tap
into” the public’s desire for problem-solving competence and
accountability, Mann said.
Later, in a trip to the White House, the seminar participants heard a
defense of the administration from John Marburger, science adviser to
the president. Marburger said that science is only one of many interests
that compete for attention and action in the White House; in any event,
he said, the administration has been far more favorable to science than
is sometimes recognized.
In another session, a series of speakers echoed Mann’s themes,
exploring in more detailed terms how crucial U.S. S&T policy has been
shaped as much by politics as by science — not just in the current
administration, but in the past as well.
Levinson, who worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy (OSTP) under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George
W. Bush, suggested that confusion and politics had been important forces
in shaping the current policy on embryonic stem cell research.
On 9 August 2001, President Bush announced the policy sharply limiting
federal support for embryonic stem cell research, citing moral concern
about the destruction of early-stage embryos. According to Levinson, Bush
spoke with “a number of experts” in science and bioethics
before settling on the policy.
However, she said, there was confusion about stem cell derivations
versus stem cell lines. There were more than 60 existing derivations
at the time the president announced his policy decision, and the White
House proponents of the current policy inferred they would be available
for research. But not every derivation can become a continuously replicating,
stable cell line. In fact, she said, to date, only 22 stem cell lines
have been established in culture and made available for research.
Jay Lefkowitz and Karen Hughes, two of Bush’s most trusted advisers,
were involved in that decision, Levinson said. Because the number of lines
available for research has turned out to be far smaller than expected,
and there are concerns about the clinical utility of existing cell lines,
U.S.-backed research on embryonic stem cells has been sharply limited.
“Certain countries have a much more liberal policy [on such research],”
Levinson said, “and there’s concern about a brain drain to
these countries, especially South Korea — although this effort has
had a recent setback due to ethical concerns — and the U.K.”
Several bills have been circulating that would change the policy, she
said, and political pressure from health-interest groups and congressional
leaders could be important in future stem cell policy decisions.
Levinson left the White House earlier this year, and now serves as director
of the Government and Industry Liaison Office for The Biodesign Institute
at Arizona State University in Tempe. Bob Simon, the Democrats’
staff director for the Senate
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, told the seminar participants
that U.S. federal energy research and development programs have been plagued
in recent years by balkanization, earmarks, and technological fads.
Much of the congressional energy debate over the past three Congresses
has been dominated by polarizing issues such as drilling in the Alaska
National Wildlife Refuge. But, Simon said, a sound national energy policy
needs to be built on a balanced and practical long-term concern for increased
energy supplies, improved energy efficiency, fair and well-functioning
markets and concern for environmental impacts of energy production and
As a result of the recent hurricanes, he said, energy supplies will remain
short, and the price of driving a car or truck or heating a home will
be volatile in the months ahead.
“One of the problems with the administration's energy policy is
that they are kicking the can down the road on a number of important issues,”
he said. “For example, whether for political or ideological reasons,
they're clearly doing that with climate change.”
The U.S. space exploration program has long been troubled by a lack of
vision and a lack of commitment, said Howard
McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington,
D.C., who has written extensively on the issue.
The last three major space initiatives — in 1972, 1984 and 2004
— each came in election years, he said. And the long-range programs
that were supposed to define the cutting edge of space exploration —
the space shuttle and the international space station — have suffered
profound delays and shortcomings because their missions have been compromised
for political and budget reasons.
For example, he said, the space station was supposed to be operational
in 1994. The shuttle was to have flown 24 to 50 missions a year, many
of them ferrying crews to and from the space station. Billions of dollars,
he concluded, have been spent on programs that didn’t come close
to achieving their purpose or objective.
The current administration has announced the goal of returning crews
to the moon — not as an end in itself, McCurdy said, but as a way
of preparing for human exploration of Mars. But the cost of reaching Mars,
as estimated by McCurdy, exceeds $500 billion. To save money, he said,
NASA now appears willing to use old, less expensive technology to go to
the moon, even though this would provide little practical help for the
mission to Mars.
Some space visionaries say we could go to Mars for $50 billion by making
fuel for the return trip on Mars. But, McCurdy said, “NASA is scared
to do it” in that price range because of the risks. (They probably
will try to manufacture fuel on Mars, but spend a lot more money doing
it, he added.)
The end result: U.S. space exploration lacks a unifying vision and meaningful
scientific mission. Driven by short-term concerns, it becomes an investment
of dubious value.
program associate in AAAS’s Center
for Science, Technology and Security Policy, had a similar vision
of the on-again, off-again U.S. plan to develop earth-penetrating “bunker-buster”
A key problem with the Robust
Nuclear Earth Penetrator, Tannenbaum said, is that policymakers steadfastly
have failed to look at the big picture.
The threat of precision-guided conventional weapons first encouraged
countries to develop underground bunkers; underground bunkers then encouraged
the U.S. to think about nuclear bunker-busters. And while the initial
belief was that the weapons would have broad advantages — they could
hit hard-to-reach underground targets while limiting nuclear fallout and
human casualties — those have proven to be myths, he said.
Proponents initially believed the fallout would be contained because
the blasts would occur underground. In fact, Tannenbaum told the seminar
participants, studies showed that the hole bored into the ground by the
penetrator would act as a vent through which the nuclear blast and radioactive
debris would be launched. And projections show that if the weapons were
used in populated areas, human casualties could equal those from above-ground
detonations, numbering in the tens of thousands or higher.
Meanwhile, he said, states pursuing nuclear weapons programs have responded
by building their weapons facilities deeper and more blast-resistant.
In effect, he said, even though the bunker-buster hasn’t been built,
the program has encouraged a defensive response.
After much engagement by the science community, hard facts have recently
helped diminish enthusiasm for the program. But Tannenbaum sees a systemic
problem: Among 535 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives
and among roughly 10,000 congressional staffers, only a few hundred have
a background in science — and even fewer really understand the role
of nuclear weapons. “They don’t have the experience to dig
into these issues and figure out what we should be doing,” he said.
Throughout the week-long seminar, participants were closely engaged in
the discussions, and presented speakers with challenging questions. Afterward,
many came away impressed by the AAAS program.
“It was very eye-opening to learn about the various factors affecting
the decision-making process and to get insight into what kind of circumstances
the people involved with the process work under,” said Peter
Westerstråhle, an attaché with the Finnish National Technology
Agency at the Embassy of Finland in Washington. “As I am a newcomer
to this country, the forum certainly helped in understanding the roles
of different institutions and learning about S&T funding in general.”
Gary Linsey, manager of business development for United Technologies
Corporation in Connecticut, offered a similar appraisal.
“Although I have been involved in parts of the process, (earmarks,
plus-ups, lobbying, etc.), it was very helpful to me to see first-hand
and understand the entire process from beginning to end,” he wrote
in an email. “The understanding of just how political Washington
is hit home for me in that week.”
But will the seminar have an effect after they’ve gone home and
returned to work? “Most definitely,” said Falk-Krzesinski.
“One of my most important roles is to become engaged in the formative
stages of science funding agencies’ program development. Now I understand
how much further upstream in that process I should focus my activities
in an effort to increase opportunities for success in my institution’s
The next AAAS Leadership Seminar will be held in November 2006. To add
your name to the mailing list for further information when it becomes
available, write Amanda Hoehn at
AAAS Science & Policy.
“The participants' feedback is extremely important to us in shaping
and refining the seminar to meet people's needs,” said Steve Nelson,
associate director of Science & Policy at AAAS and co-organizer of
the seminar. “The positive accounts of their experience tell us
that we're generally on the right track in designing the seminar. But
participants also gave us a lot of helpful suggestions for how it can
be improved. With the experience of two successful years in offering the
seminar now, we hope that its reputation for quality and value will grow.”
Edward W. Lempinen
9 Decmber 2005