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Obama Could Have Major S&T Impact, Despite Financial Crisis, Experts Say at AAAS Leadership Seminar
Michelle Colby, assistant director for homeland security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, talks to participants at the AAAS Leadership Seminar in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.
President-elect Barack Obama will be focused on the economy and national security and federal spending will be constrained by the financial crisis, but the new administration still could have a dramatic impact on science-related issues, experts said at AAAS.
Science may not be Obama's most urgent priority, but he has signaled clearly that he recognizes the importance of science in addressing energy, climate change, health and other issues, the experts said at the annual AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy.
While the financial crisis may limit allocations for research and development, they predicted, an emergency public works program with hundreds of billions of dollars in funding could give Obama the latitude to begin dramatic new green development projects. Obama could move quickly to expand embryonic stem cell research and smooth visa policies that have frustrated foreign scientists and students coming to the United States. And he has committed the U.S. to taking a lead role in crafting a replacement for the Kyoto Protocols on global climate change.
Albert H. Teich
"The timing of the seminar was fortuitous this year," said Albert H. Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. "It gave participants a rare opportunity to get insights into the new administration's science and technology policies as they are developing."
Teich was a co-organizer of the Leadership Seminar, along with Stephen Nelson, associate director of Science and Policy Programs, and Bethany Spencer, project administrator. Thirty-four professionals from science, education, business and foreign embassies came to AAAS from 17-21 November for an intensive course in the inner workings of Washington, D.C., with briefings provided by nearly three dozen experts in policy-making, economics, and journalism. The seminar covered an array of subjects and issues: From the mechanisms of Congress and lobbying to fine-grained analysis of the U.S. research and development budget and the road ahead for policy in nanotechnology, space exploration and national security.
Participants said they came away with a strong sense of the challenges facing the nation—and their own potential role in addressing them.
"I now see how complicated the authorization process is in the U.S. and have more realistic expectations of what the new administration will be able to do for science and technology," said Naomi Webber, a senior policy adviser for the Research Councils UK Office at the British Embassy in Washington. "Coordination across agencies on issues such as energy and climate change remains a challenge. "
"It feels like an opportune time for concerned and motivated scientists to become engaged," added Susan Stevens Hummel, research forester based in Portland, Oregon, for the U.S. Forest Service.
The science-related challenges and choices confronting the incoming Obama administration were a core theme of the Leadership Seminar. That reflected AAAS's close engagement with the presidential campaign and transition. Earlier this year, the association helped lead an effort to bring the candidates together for a debate on science and technology. When the candidates were unavailable, it backed Scientists and Engineers for America as the group organized a pair of debates on health and energy policy featuring representatives from the campaigns of Obama and Senator John McCain.
In the days before the election, AAAS joined nearly180 organizations in urging the next president to appoint a White House science adviser with Cabinet rank by Inauguration Day. And as the departing administration of President George W. Bush mulled 11th hour changes in rules and regulations, AAAS wrote letters urging the administration not to weaken the scientific process underlying the Endangered Species Act. On 14 November, AAAS submitted a comment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on potential rule changes for greenhouse gas emissions regulations under the Clean Air Act, urging the agency to consider the scientific consensus that global climate change is "a growing threat to society."
In this year's Leadership Seminar, the Obama transition and the S&T forecast for his first months in office was a constant theme.
Several speakers agreed that science, in general, might not be a transition priority as urgent as the financial crisis and foreign affairs. But, they said, Obama clearly recognizes that science and technology are crucial in many of the nation's most pressing challenges.
Obama has already named a science adviser—former AAAS president and chairman John P. Holdren, and Obama is also likely to name a chief technology officer who may have a mandate to explore how to expand public use of the Internet, how Internet technology can do more to connect people with their government, and how the government can use it to operate more efficiently.
The view distilled from the seminar presentations suggests that Obama will take dramatic action on several key science-related areas:
The financial crisis and science spending. Throughout the seminar, speakers made clear that Obama's S&T agenda would be shaped by the financial crisis.
The federal deficit hit a record $455 billion for the budget year that ended 30 September, and it could soar past $1 trillion in the current fiscal year, said Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. "You can imagine what impact that will have on federal spending plans."
Greg Ip, U.S. economic editor for The Economist agreed that "there's going to have to be some adjustment in expectations." The U.S. is facing an historic recession, he said, and "it's going to be long and it's going to be deep."
Norman J. Ornstein
But author and pundit Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute offered a counterintuitive view: The severity of the crisis will provide an opportunity for Obama. There is bi-partisan agreement in Congress and among economists that, regardless of the deficit, the federal government must borrow hundreds of billions of dollars and spend it to stimulate the economy. That, said Ornstein, will be Obama's opportunity to begin on the agenda spelled out in his campaign.
"It's going to be all stimulus, all the time," he quipped. "The Cialis version of government awaits us, and it'll last more than 4 hours. All of that leads to an imperative for action."
Stimulus funds may not be targeted for traditional research and development—such investment typically takes years to pay dividends. But, noted Ornstein, it could mean an infusion of investment for such quick-impact projects as rebuilding the archaic U.S. electricity grid to make is more effective, promoting the use of clean-coal technology, expanding wind-power capacity, and upgrading bridges, roads and other elements of the U.S. infrastructure.
Energy and Climate. In Obama's view, and increasingly among policy experts, energy and climate are inseparable. Obama has favored an energy policy in which the development of green technology and power sources can both address environmental problems and stimulate the economy.
Bob Simon, staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said presidents since Richard Nixon have made a point of having an energy policy. But, Simon said, the policy has typically been driven by short-term events: weather, near-term economic growth, movements in the price of oil. Long-term vision has been lacking.
That's left the United States with a dubious default energy strategy: "Depend on foreign oil for transportation," Simon said, "and complain about it."
Today, however, steady energy supplies face enormous risks. Energy uncertainty is accumulating—the result of hurricanes, climate change, nationalization of oil resources in some areas, Russia's recent energy assertiveness, the constant jeopardy facing Middle Eastern supplies, and geopolitical instability, among other factors.
The complexity of the current era demands a new approach, Simon said. The United States needs a market structure and regulations that can manage the near-term risk and volatility while pursuing a vision for the future.
Simon acknowledged that plunging oil and gasoline prices could ease the pressure for such change. Carbon dioxide emissions will fall, too, because of the recession, but "that shouldn't fool anyone," he said. "All recessions end. You know that when it's over, economic activity will go right back to where it was."
Instead, he said, the United States might be better served by realizing that the recession "gives us a brief pause, if we're smart, to invest in better policies."
During the campaign, Obama advanced a plan to invest $150 billion in a "green energy economy" that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce reliance on foreign oil, and will create 5 million new jobs.
Some of that funding could come from the fiscal stimulus package. Obama and Congress could move to develop and pass a cap-and-trade system—essentially a program for controlling greenhouse gas emissions by selling permits to pollute to utilities and other industries. That could generate billions in new revenues, experts said.
Obama has "made it very clear" that cap-and-trade "is very important to him," Ornstein said.
Embryonic stem cell research. This is an area where the new administration could make an almost immediate, low-cost impact on an issue that's been important to a bi-partisan span of science, health, and patients groups. During the campaign, Obama said that if Congress sent a bill overturning the Bush administrations sharp limits on federal funding for such research, he would sign it. But Rachel Levinson, who served under the past three presidents as assistant director for life sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the seminar that Obama might act more quickly than that.
"I am willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction," said Levinson. "I think that President Obama will release an executive order within 48 hours of his inauguration lifting the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.... He has the power, with respect to federal funds, to lift that ban."
Levinson is currently the director of special projects and research initiatives in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs at Arizona State University.
Visas. Other speakers expressed a hope that the new administration would move to amend U.S. visa policies in a way that could ease the travels of foreign scientists into the United States. That could aid the global flow of scientific knowledge, they said—and it could help repair the tarnished reputation of the United States overseas.
Norman P. Neureiter
It is a concern that science and education leaders have expressed for several years in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and ensuing security crackdowns. While there have been some improvements in visa processing and improving treatment of foreign visitors at the borders, the visa system "is still a great disaster," said Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
"If you invite people from Russia or China or India or a Muslim country... it's very difficult to get them here," said Neureiter, who also serves as a senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. "Usually, though not always, they will eventually get the visa but it'll be three days late for the meeting they want to attend, so they don't even bother. And these are often the people who are really needed for the meeting or they would not be invited. We're on a really destructive path and I hope the new administration can do something about it."
The view was shared by Teich, the head of science policy at AAAS. He cited cases of delayed U.S. entry permission and rude treatment of eminent foreign scientists as "extremely embarrassing" for the United States. Though visa processing generally has improved, he said, the results have been inconsistent. The average visa wait in China had fallen to two or three weeks, but has risen back up to seven or eight weeks.
"Science is a global enterprise," Teich said at the seminar, "and to try to wall off American science from the world with the idea of protecting ourselves from terrorism is, in the view of many people, shooting ourselves in the foot."
Teich suggested that the Obama administration might consider a proposal in which science leaders in the United States would be allowed to cut through visa delays by personally vouching for visiting foreign scientists.
Public education and outreach. In the current policy environment, some said, the importance of science often is underappreciated. Though it's rarely acknowledged by public officials or the news media, several experts at the seminar said that education would be crucial to the advancement of Obama's S&T initiatives, especially in energy and climate.
Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, found cause for optimism about the public's readiness to address the issues. "One ray of hope is energy," Traiman said, a challenge that "could inspire today's youth like Sputnik" did in the 1950s. Many issues are being "cloaked in green," she added, and that increasingly draws a favorable public response.
Others were less hopeful.
"The economy, war, the environment, climate change—those are all issues that can't be fully understood and discussed without understanding of science and technology," said Christopher Hill, professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University.
Hill noted that the "60 Minutes" interview with Obama after the election never addressed science issues. If the media and the public don't appreciate the importance of science, he said, that can warp the policy process.
Regarding energy and climate challenges, "it's very popular to say: 'What we need is another Manhattan Project or another Apollo Project,'" he said. "My sense is that nothing could be further from the truth." While the historic nuclear weapons effort and the man-on-the-moon program were initiatives of government and industry in pursuit of single technical objectives, Hill said, climate change and energy are issues that affect "everyone, everyday, everywhere, and that demand many separate and distinct R&D efforts."
Simon, who directs the Senate Energy Committee staff, took the point a step further. "We need to communicate honestly to the public both the difficult challenges of bringing about a revolutionary transformation of the global energy system and the absolute necessity of starting that transformation as quickly as possible," he said. "It is a tough challenge that cannot be put off."
Susan Stevens Hummel, a research forester based at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Oregon:
"The seminar was well-paced and informative. My work will benefit from exposure to the processes of science and technology policy in Washington DC because I heard that timely and relevant information can have an impact on public investment in research and science education. In the coming months my task --as a scientist and public servant -- is to translate the seminar experience into specific actions I would not have otherwise undertaken.
"It feels like an opportune time for concerned and motivated scientists to become engaged."
Naomi Webber, a senior policy adviser for the Research Councils UK Office at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.:
"I thought the seminar was excellent. It covered a wide range of issues and, coming from overseas, I now have a much better understanding of how U.S. government works and the role science policy plays in it.
"I now see how complicated the authorization process is in the U.S. and have more realistic expectations of what the new administration will be able to do for science and technology. Coordination across agencies on issues such as energy and climate change remains a challenge."
23 December 2008