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William H. Press: Seeking the Possible in Difficult Times

Support for science might be expected to suffer in a year of election-driven partisanship and a tough fiscal environment. But as he prepares to assume the presidency of AAAS, William Press sees some positive aspects: bipartisan agreement on key U.S. science policy goals, a renewed national focus on science education, a strong set of international collaborations, and new chances to share the beauty and benefits of science with the public.

While news reports and campaigns stress conflict, members of both parties recognize that investments in innovation and education are vital to American success and generally agree on the need for federal research funding, said Press, a professor of computer science and integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin.


William H. Press

“The political debate now is not about whether basic, fundamental research is worth supporting,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s about doing enough of it, and, wherever possible, coupling it to the economy.” When partisan arguments arise, Press said, they will reflect political and philosophical differences about government’s role in transforming basic research into applications.

And that, he said, suggests an important role for U.S. AAAS members and other scientists and engineers: They can join the effort to resolve complex policy problems—from a comprehensive energy plan to a modernized health care system—by visiting congressional offices in their home districts. Although individual scientists may have partisan leanings, “science is intrinsically nonpartisan,” he said. “We can educate our members of Congress and their staffs on what we believe are the facts, and how certain we are about them.”

As a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for the past 2 years, Press has played an active role in bringing science to bear on national policies. A noted researcher whose work has spanned a remarkable range of disciplines—from computer science to genomics, statistical methods, astrophysics, and international security—he also served as deputy laboratory director for science and technology at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1998 to 2004.

Press will succeed Nina V. Fedoroff as president when the AAAS Annual Meeting closes on 20 February. Fedoroff will begin a 1-year term as chairperson of the AAAS Board.

As an astrophysicist at Harvard University from 1976 to 1998, Press was best known for his collaboration on the Press-Schechter formalism, which predicts the masses of galaxies within the universe, as well as his work on supernovae to estimate cosmic distances, which helped clear a path to the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The power of computational science is the constant in his career, from his Numerical Recipes books on scientific computing and more recent projects in molecular biology and clinical trials.

“I had such fun, and was productive riding this wave in the physical sciences,” he said, “that I just could never forgive myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to stay on this same wave and do computational biology.”

Press’s eclectic interests make him an excellent ambassador for a message that he wants the public to understand: Science doesn’t proceed in a neat or linear fashion. Who could have predicted, he asked, that a probability distribution algorithm worked out by Google’s founders would become the backbone of a cultural and economic giant? “When we have a national and global scientific enterprise that is out there building terrain...that can become fertile ground on which all kinds of applications can grow.”

AAAS has been instrumental in building this terrain through international science initiatives, and Press said that continued support for these programs is a critical counterbalance against the notion that global collaborations are a “luxury rather than an economic necessity.”

U.S. graduate school programs still attract researchers from around the world, he noted, but PCAST, AAAS, and others are now offering ideas about improving undergraduate science education. “We need to admit that we’re not doing a good job in those first 2 years” of undergraduate study, he said. “People aren’t going to be attracted to science by a freshman course in which they’re just going to be sitting in a large lecture hall. But they are attracted when we can get them out into research laboratories and they see what research really is.”

Press cited several polls showing that the American public remains committed to science and sees scientists as trustworthy and prestigious citizens. With this in mind, he thinks voters will be very interested to hear what the 2012 presidential candidates have to say about their own plans for science.

“There’s a broad segment of the American public that’s interested in science and innovation, both the beauty and benefits of it,” he said. “One of our goals should be to find ways to allow those things to move forward, and not have them brought down by things we can’t agree on.”