Federal science needs three major shifts to ensure that the benefits of science and technology address the challenges facing all Americans, Arati Prabhakar said in her first public address as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Speaking at AAAS headquarters on Oct. 21, Prabhakar said that "at every step of the way, science, technology, research, innovation, experimentation have been integral" to U.S. justice, national defense and the general welfare.
But with future challenges ahead for health, the climate and economic growth, "our job is to open the doors so that the scale of advances matches the magnitude of our challenges," said the new OSTP director, who was confirmed to the post on Sept. 22. Prabhakar is the first woman and the first person of color to hold the position.
Prabhakar outlined three shifts in federal science that she said are necessary to "meet the moment:" Building a "what does it take?" mindset, advancing equity, and considering science's societal implications.
The federal science and technology enterprise needs more of a "what does it take" mindset, according to Prabhakar, to consider a specific goal, the obstacles to achieving it, and the game plan needed to fulfill it. This kind of thinking is already underway in projects such as the Cancer Moonshot℠ initiative, investment in American semiconductor manufacturing led by the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, and new efforts led by OSTP to quantify the economic value of natural resources, she said.
Advancing equity in the science and technology workforce and ensuring that the benefits of research are shared equitably in the nation should be another priority for federal science, Prabhakar noted. She pointed to several expanded efforts to boost STEM education, the National Science Foundation's Regional Innovation Engines and the Biden administration's equitable data initiative to increase the federal data available for measuring equity.
These programs are "the kinds of efforts that are going to allow us to be much more deliberate about opening up the opportunities that science and technology provides to everyone in every ZIP code in the country," she said.
The third shift necessary for federal science involves the societal implications of research and development, so that discoveries lead to more healing than harm. Prabhakar said OSTP's new blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights is a good example of how "thinking through these implications … has to become integral to everything we do in science and technology."
AAAS President and Olin College of Engineering President Gilda Barbarino, who introduced Prabhakar at the event, noted that the new OSTP director has extensive experience in U.S. research and policy, including as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and as a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow.
After her talk, Prabhakar spoke with AAAS CEO Sudip S. Parikh and took questions from the audience at the AAAS auditorium. Many of the questions centered on national security and restrictions and surveillance of foreign-born researchers, especially Chinese researchers working in the U.S.
The rights of those researchers in America, said Prabhakar, "can't be sacrificed in dealing with issues that are also very real on the other side, which is we have, particularly China, very aggressively seeking our technology, our intellectual property, our know-how."
Prabhakar noted that the president's fiscal year 2023 budget request included more than $200 billion for federal science and technology, with $111 billion of that amount directed at basic and applied research. This is the largest-ever budget request for science and technology, she said.
Prabhakar said she was confident much of this request would be supported on a bipartisan basis by Congress. "What the political world is saying to science and technology is, 'we believe in you, we need you, we're going to keep backing you, and we need you to keep what you've been doing.'"