Science Policy and Education Leaders Push for Progress in Climate Change, STEM Education

At the 2014 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, White House Science and Technology Adviser John Holdren and other experts described research efforts that are breaking ground despite fiscal constraints.
John Holdren | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Although federal R&D funding is "not what we'd like it to be," science and technology are still high priorities in the White House, President Obama's top science adviser said Thursday.

For example, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has recently completed a number of projects in support of the president's Climate Action Plan, including a soon-to-be-released climate assessment that will "lay out in an unprecedented degree of detail" what the impacts of climate change are likely to be in different regions of the country and in different sectors of the economy, said John Holdren, director of OSTP and assistant to the president for science and technology, speaking at AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

The assessment, carried out by a consortium of 13 federal departments and agencies and overseen by OSTP, is the third of its kind since 2000 and will be released on 6 May. The information in the report should help people prepare for the impacts of climate change and motivate them to take actions to reduce greenhouse gases, according to Holdren. "I think we're going to lift our game in climate change," with the help of assessments like this, he said.

The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) also released a report yesterday detailing the technical aspects of big data and privacy. The report complements a related analysis of the policy issues in this area by White House counselor John Podesta, which was prompted in part by the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, according to Holdren.

Holdren gave the keynote address on 1 May, which opened the 39th annual AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum in Washington DC.  Each year the event draws more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, educators, and is organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs.

Sharon Hays (top) and Matthew Hourihan (bottom) | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Challenges on the Hill

All four of the speakers in the Thursday morning plenary session, including Holdren, independently noted that many countries have dramatically increased their R&D spending; for example China's national R&D investment has roughly tripled in the 21st century. In contrast, U.S. federal R&D spending has dropped by $24 billion since 2010, according to Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget Analysis Program at AAAS. The resulting "innovation deficit" in the United States has serious implications for economic competitiveness and national security, said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

President Barack Obama's proposed R&D budget for 2015 is a modest $136.5 billion, a 0.6% increase above 2014. But that does not match the 1.7% rate of inflation. The proposal falls within the spending caps set by the Murray-Ryan budget deal from last December. The Obama budget also requests an additional $5.3 billion in R&D spending for a so-called Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, but this is unlikely to be approved, according to Hourihan.

"It's very much a treading water kind of budget," Hourihan said.

Another area where some members of Congress and the scientific community do not see eye-to-eye on the importance of basic research, much of which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Holdren expressed concern over the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) authorization bill proposed by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), which would reshape the National Science Foundation's peer-reviewed grant-making system. Holdren noted that other countries are trying to replicate the NSF's successful approach. "To try to fix what is not broken at NSF would risk eroding a cornerstone of American science and engineering excellence," he said.

Rawlings also stressed the need to support basic research. As an example, he held up his smartphone and listed the many technologies on it that could not have been possible without basic research that took place in university and government labs: the GPS, the touchscreen, the LCD monitor, rechargeable lithium batteries, integrated circuits, and the Internet. Companies like Apple have been "surfing on the wave of the federal investment in research," he said.

The FIRST act would also significantly reduce funding for the Directorate for Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the NSF, which the AAU strongly opposes, according to Rawlings.

Impacts on Campus

Hunter Rawlings (top) and David Wilson (bottom) | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The president's FY 2015 budget includes $2.9 billion for federal STEM education programs, an increase of 3.7% over the amount in the enacted 2014 budget. Nonetheless, the fiscal constraints imposed in Washington are already being felt by research universities, said Rawlings. Seventy percent of universities responding to an AAU survey last October said they had experienced a decline in the number federal research grants. And three out of five reported impacts on personnel, such as layoffs or other actions, which particularly affected graduate students.

Improving the quality of STEM teaching at research universities is a key goal for the AAU, along with its other efforts in the areas such as reducing administrative workload, which was the subject of a National Science Board report released yesterday. The association has launched a project at eight of its member universities to improve teaching in introductory STEM classes, using active, engaged learning approaches.

Teaching is also a top priority at Morgan State University and many other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), said the university's president, David Wilson. And, the effort pays off. Although only 9% of African American students attend the 105 HBCU in the United States, these institutions produce a much larger percentage of the nation's African American students with undergraduate and graduate degrees in science and engineering fields. For example, one-third of African American science and technology doctoral students received their undergraduate degree from an HBCU, said Wilson, citing a NSF study.

Despite statistics like these, Wilson said he continues to be asked whether HBCUs are still relevant or necessary. And, these institutions receive just a fraction of the federal funding that the big research universities do. In 2011, the nation's top 10 universities spend 13 times more on research than all of its HBCUs combined, according to Wilson.

Increasing the diversity of the U.S. STEM workforce will be critical for solving global problems and re-establishing the United States as a global leader in S&T. And, HBCUs must be recognized and supported as key to that goal, Wilson said.

"I think we must use the increasing diversity as an engine for competing on the global stage," he said. "For if we do not invest in and include these institutions, I'm afraid that we will lose a gigantic opportunity for this country."