Graduate Student Conference Reveals Centrality of Science to Global Challenges

Addressing climate change will require governments to significantly boost their research portfolios to develop cleaner energies and tools to cope with the consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions. But at a recent conference co-hosted by AAAS, United Nations Foundations senior fellow Mohamed El-Ashry said an important issue is often lost in recent discussions—the who of addressing climate change.

“Beyond the funding, we need to create the next generation of scientists that will develop the essential innovative technologies and form the climate policy leadership that will inform policymakers and the public,” said El-Ashry, an influential environmental policy leader who from 1994 to 2003 served as chief executive officer and chairman of the Global Environment Facility.

El-Ashry spoke about his 40-year experience working in climate policy—from local water analyses to global climate frameworks—along with the centrality of science to society’s most urgent challenges during a plenary address at the 10th Annual Science & Technology in Society Conference.


Mohamed El-Ashry [Photo © United Nations Foundation]
Mohamed El-Ashry | Photo © United Nations Foundation

The conference—“Innovating the Future: Critical Perspectives in Science & Technology”—brought several top policy leaders together with more than 125 graduate students for three days of poster sessions, small group presentations, career panels, and plenary addresses at AAAS headquarters and the U.S. National Academies in Washington, D.C.


Vicki Seyfert-Margolis
Vicki Seyfert-Margolis

Held 9-11 April, the event also featured Vicki Seyfert-Margolis, senior advisor to the chief scientist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google; and John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It was co-sponsored by AAAS, the National Academies, and the ST Global Consortium, which includes graduate students from Arizona State University, George Mason University, George Washington University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech, and École des Mines de Paris.

Tom Bridge, conference chair and a master’s candidate in the history of technology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said that the conference brings graduate students together to develop professionally by presenting their research to their peer group, networking, and hearing about real world science and technology policy in action.

Vint Cerf
Vint Cerf

“ST Global is about bringing graduate student programs together to compare and contrast different schools of thought, different research methodologies, and different policy projects,” said Bridge. “The conference recognizes that learning also happens outside the classroom.”

While El-Ashry and the other plenary speakers covered a range of topics, all shared a common theme: Bringing the latest science and technology to bear on the global challenges.

Seyfert-Margolis said that the FDA, which regulates one-quarter of the U.S. economy, is looking to use science more proactively to promote public well-being. By improving the way in which her agency regulates products—from drugs to foods to medical devices—the agency hopes to increase public safety and drive innovation for life-saving products.

Seyfert-Margolis said that many great discoveries get lost in the “innovation valley of death,” with breakthroughs made in the laboratory failing to move from a research environment to a finished drug for public use. While some fail on scientific grounds, others never make it through the drug-making process due to high-costs and complex regulatory processes.

“We need more streamlined, transparent regulatory processes as a way to encourage scientists and pharmaceutical companies to take risks and develop the next life-saving drugs,” she said.

Beyond encouraging the development of new drugs, Seyfert-Margolis said the FDA has placed more emphasis on the impact of technology on public health. For example, the FDA developed a task force in 2007 to explore the use of nanotechnology in foods, medicines, and cosmetics, and its potential impact on human health. Beginning in 2008, the FDA studied titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles present in some sunscreens to determine if their use could cause DNA damage.

Despite the FDA’s effort to increase the use of science to promote public health, Seyfert-Margolis noted that public health interests, as well as the political, economic, and social environment, have a powerful influence on FDA policy.

“Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said, “and there are sometimes issues beyond science that affect our actions.”

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, said that technology is a powerful tool for making change. But people often underestimate its power, Cerf said, and over-estimate its cost.

Cerf cited Google’s recent plans to test and build ultra-high-speed broadband in cities around the country. Google pledged to charge the communities a competitive price for the service; while many cities jumped on the opportunity to test the high-speed connection, others were concerned about the cost.

“Among the reasons Google developed the project is to show people that it’s possible to do things like this without being too expensive,” said Cerf. He predicted that once other cities see the program’s effectiveness and cost, they will come on board.

John P. Holdren
John P. Holdren

During a plenary address outlining the federal government’s strong commitment to science and technology, John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and a former AAAS president, said that U.S. President Barack Obama believes “science is not only germane to the country’s success, but essential.”

Holdren said that science is at the core of the nation’s biggest policy debates including healthcare, national security, and energy, as well as a major driver of innovation and economic recovery. The centrality of science and technology “doesn’t mean that science will dominate policy discussion,” he said, “but it will be at the table.”

Holdren also highlighted the president’s commitment to maintaining the U.S. competitive advantage for innovation through strong support of science in the federal budget and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. While there is concern in the White House about other countries chipping away at U.S. dominance in science and technology, Holdren rejected claims that “one country’s gain is another’s loss.”

“There are many benefits to other countries increasing their science and technology investments, including more partners with whom our scientists can collaborate,” said Holdren.

El-Ashry, born in Egypt, is the former chief executive officer and chairman of the Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization which creates a partnership among international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and 181 member governments to address environmental issues. He has held high-ranking research, teaching, and administrative positions in organizations as diverse as Cairo University, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the World Bank.

Echoing Holdren’s remarks on international science, El-Ashry called for more regional modeling of climate change and better assessment of how healthy ecosystems support local and national economies.

Focusing on local effects—like harsher weather condition or changes in the timing of snow-melt used in agriculture—could prompt people to pressure their governments into action. Regional modeling also helps governments recognize that the effects “are not just over there in the Arctic,” he said, “but on our farms and within our borders.”

El-Ashry said that potential access to clean energy also could be a critical, both for building political support in the United States and bringing developing nations into climate discussions.

While there is a clear scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and greenhouse gasses are the primary driver, El-Ashry said the recent climate summit in Copenhagen failed in part due to policymakers and some scientists asserting certainty around its consequences.

“Policy-types made it seem like the science of predicting the effects of climate change was clear and therefore its solution was clear,” said El-Ashry. “But really policy makers should have been highlighting the uncertainty of what might happen over the next 50 years, which is much scarier.”

Graduate students at the conference welcomed the opportunity to hear the insights of top policymakers and others at the conference.

Sarah Lovell, an engineer with a master’s degree in technology policy from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said that the conference shows the “nuts and bolts of how science and engineering are integrated into society and used to solve problems.”

“There aren’t many venues for graduate students to interact with policymakers of this high-caliber,” she said. “It’s a fantastic learning opportunity.” Lovell recently completed a nine-month Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship sponsored by the National Academies.

Grant Kopec, a classmate of Lovell at the University of Cambridge who now works for the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies, said that the conference allows participants to see how “top U.S. officials in the government and industry view science as an essential component of their long-term policies, and how this differs from views in other countries.”

Learn more about the ST Global Consortium.