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John Holdren: Sequester Again Threatens Future of U.S. Science & Technology Enterprise

Although the need for more R&D funding has become a familiar refrain in science and technology circles, supporting federal research agencies "is a particular challenge now" said John Holdren in a 30 April speech that opened the 40th AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

"Sustaining and growing support for research and development under the kinds of constraints that we have experienced in the federal budget" is one of the top S&T-related challenges — along with others involving climate change, NASA funding, and STEM education — facing the Obama administration in its last year and a half, said Holdren who is the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president for science and technology.

Holdren gave the keynote address at the annual, two-day event, which typically draws more than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, and educators.

Matt Hourihan | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The 2013 Murray-Ryan budget deal offset some of the worst effects of the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, but it expired in FY 2015 and no new compromise is on the table.  Meanwhile, the portion of the budget devoted to discretionary spending — as opposed to mandatory spending on entitlements — has dropped by about 15 percent since FY 2010. Total R&D spending has also declined by roughly that amount, with defense-related spending taking the brunt of the impact, according to Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

President Obama's budget proposal for FY 2016 included substantial funding increases to some agencies, reflecting White House initiatives in areas such as advanced manufacturing, antibiotic resistance, and neuroscience. But "in order to meet the forward-leaning levels in the president's budget, we would need to get out from under sequestration," Holdren said. "The president's budget assumes the Congress will have the wisdom to do that."

"Sequestration levels are nothing less really than a disaster across the federal government," he continued. "We simply cannot maintain American's pre-eminence in science, technology, and innovation…without making the investments that will not be possible if sequestration levels are maintained."

Recently the House proposed a bill reauthorizing the America COMPETES act, which sets funding targets for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Many members of the scientific community, including AAAS, have expressed concerns about provisions in the bill. Holdren criticized the bill for cutting back on investments in clean energy R&D and on funding for NSF's earth science and social, behavioral, and economic sciences programs. Further coverage of his remarks is available at ScienceInsider.

The White House will not make a formal statement about the bill until it is scheduled for debate on the House floor "but you shouldn't take the silence officially up until now as assent," Holdren said, adding "I will make clear my personal opinion that the COMPETES act is bad for science, bad for scientists and engineers, and bad for the federal science agencies that would be authorized by the bill. It would be damaging to the world-leading U.S. science and engineering enterprise."

John Holdren | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

In his address, Holdren outlined three other challenges for the administration: advancing a national policy on energy and climate change, reconciling the ambitious goals for NASA with "budget realities," and addressing systematic weaknesses in STEM education. Following his speech, Holdren revisited these themes in a conversation with Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

Citing polls showing that the majority of the U.S. public does believe that climate change is taking place, Holdren said the real problem is that the issue isn't as urgent as other concerns that many people have: "We need to be more in the business of persuading people this needs to be higher on their priority list." Providing information about the local impacts of climate change, specific to individual regions or communities, has proven useful in this respect, he said.

When asked what he would most like the public to understand about science, Holdren said that, although skepticism is a healthy part of science, "one should not assume that the conventional wisdom is about to be overturned every time someone points to a contrary result." Scientists' understanding of climate change, for example, is based on a large, robust, and diverse body of evidence, and it is extremely unlikely to be disproven even if certain details have yet to be clarified, he said.

Therefore, "if you are a policy maker and the public's well being depends on your decisions, it would be imprudent to bet on the very long odds that that mainstream understanding is going to be overturned."


Kathy Wren