Thomas Kalil: Energy and Climate Top President Obama’s Science Priorities for 2010

Energy and climate top President Barack Obama’s science-related priorities for 2010, with science education, creation of science and technology jobs, and cyber-security also areas of high priority, a key White House science policy adviser told the AAAS Leadership Seminar.

Thomas Kalil

Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy at the Office Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), told the Leadership Seminar that the Obama administration would have a firm emissions-reduction proposal to offer when United Nations climate change negotiations 9 December in Copenhagen. His comments, made on 18 November, foreshadowed the disclosure a week later that Obama would travel to the conference with a pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.

In his meeting with the AAAS group, Kalil reiterated the administration’s support for a cap-and-trade program that would reduce future emissions by allowing industries and others to buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases. He said he was not at liberty to disclose details about the plans for Copenhagen, but he suggested that an ambitious emissions-reduction plan fit the administration’s intent to press for energy and climate progress in the next 12 months.

When asked to name the top White House science priorities for 2010, he said: “I think energy and climate is a very big one. If I had to identify the single most important science and technology priority for the administration, I think energy and climate is probably at the top.”

During his 55-minute meeting with the sixth annual Leadership Seminar on Science and Technology Policy, Kalil covered a range of issues: the looming shakeout in federal funding for research and science-related initiatives; the importance of building international S&T cooperation; and innovation policy. He also offered a survey of Obama’s science accomplishments in the first 10 months of his administration.

Kei Koizumi

Kalil’s talk to the seminar was followed a day later by a presentation on research and development budget policy from Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D at OSTP.

The AAAS Leadership Seminar is a crash-course in U.S. science and technology policy, modeled after the acclaimed orientation program that AAAS provides for its new Science & Technology Policy Fellows each fall. From 16-20 November, 35 people spanning a range of fields and disciplines—not only science and technology, but government, education, business, health, and diplomacy—heard top U.S. policy leaders provide a clear, candid look at science and science-funding issues.

The seminar was organized by Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS, along with associate director Stephen Nelson and project administrator Bethany Spencer.

Kalil, in addition to his position with OSTP, is senior advisor for science, technology and innovation for the National Economic Council. He previously served as deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton for Technology and Economic Policy. He is on leave from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology.

Of the priorities and interests Kalil discussed at the Leadership Seminar, virtually all were linked directly or indirectly to the administration’s innovation policy. And many touched on energy and climate innovation.

For example, Kalil said, the Department of Energy (DOE) has opened 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers involving national laboratories, industry, and universities. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program received its first funding this fall to explore high-risk, high-potential “transformative” energy research.

He cited Obama’s late October visit to MIT as emblematic of the administration’s commitment. There, the president viewed research into window panes that can also collect solar energy; batteries that are assembled by genetically engineered viruses; and energy storage systems that allow power from offshore windmills to be used whenever it’s needed.

“Nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy,” Obama said at MIT. “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I'm convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation.”

Among other White House priorities for science and technology, Kalil listed:

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, from elementary through post-graduate levels. For example, he said, the “Race to the Top” program in the economic stimulus package is providing $4 billion in competitive awards to schools that offer novel new approaches to teaching and learning. Schools that put science-related education “front and center” will get extra points in the award competition. And he cited an October astronomy event on the White House lawn that featured former astronauts, moon rocks, dozens of telescopes, and scores of young students.

Innovation policy. In late September, Kalil said, Obama detailed an innovation policy based on three pillars: investing in job creation; creating the right environment for private-sector investment; and harnessing S&T innovation to national priorities. To build “the foundation for the industry and jobs of the future,” he added, “it’s important for the United States to continue to be a leader in areas of bio-, info-, and nanotechnology [research].”

Cyber-security, which he described as “a major unsolved problem.”

International S&T collaboration. The administration has been active in building science and technology dialogue and collaboration with China, Russia and India, he said. Those efforts are likely to expand in the months ahead, he said.

Kalil used the discussion to offer a month-by-month scorecard of the administration’s science-related successes. In March, Obama issued new federal guidelines expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In April, he delivered a heralded address on the role of science in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences. In August, Obama initiated a review of Cold War controls on “dual-use” export controls.

In October, Obama announced a major new initiative in international science engagement, with three prominent researchers named “science envoys”: Bruce Alberts, president emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and currently editor-in-chief of AAAS’s journal Science; Elias Zerhouni, former director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and currently chief scientific adviser of the new AAAS journal Science Translational Medicine; and Ahmed Zewail, the 1999 Nobel laureate in chemistry who directs the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science & Technology at Caltech.

Though Kalil painted a promising future, he acknowledged in response to a question that some federal research agencies may face budget problems as the economy rebounds and the administration moves to reduce historic budget deficits.

The economic stimulus program has allowed new funding for education, plus millions of dollars in investments for broadband, health information technology, the smart grid. Some agencies have used the stimulus funds for short-term grants or for infrastructure and equipment, which Kalil called “an ideal way to use one-time stimulus funding.”

But as efforts to close the federal budget gap intensify, pressures on research budgets “will be a real issue,” he said. “Obviously, fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction is going to have to be a priority and there’s no way that we can sustain the levels of deficits we’ve had.”

The fiscal stimulus program “was not intended to establish a new baseline” for research agencies, he added. “So some agencies are definitely going to see a reduction in funding from what they’ve seen [under the stimulus program]. But within those constraints, the president has made some commitment to provide longer-term support for some of the key science agencies.”

Federal spending—and borrowing—was a central issue on 19 November, when Koizumi, the OSTP’s chief budget analyst, spoke at the Leadership Seminar.

The United States has been in debt since its founding, said Koizumi, who previously served as director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS. But today, he said, debt is at historic levels—it’s nearing $12 trillion, and it could rise as high as $18 trillion by 2014. Last year, he said, the federal deficit accounted for 11% of the U.S. gross domestic product, the highest level since World War II. And much of that debt, he said, is held by China, Japan, and other foreign governments.

“There’s no consensus about whether that’s good or bad,” Koizumi said of the foreign IOUs. “It depends on what you borrowed it for, and whether you’re able to keep up with the payments. Compared to many other countries, the United States looks pretty good.”

But, Koizumi added, “the debt forecasts do challenge all of us, they challenge the president. That’s why he’s working to come up with some ideas and policy programs for reducing the budget deficit without cutting some needed investments.”