The senior science and technology advisor for President Obama, John Holdren, answered questions on Twitter on Jan. 29 as part of the administration's "Big Block of Cheese Day." Holdren took over the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)'s Twitter account to answer questions on topics as varied as STEM education initiatives, funding for tech start-ups and extraterrestrial vehicles.
Holdren's stint on Twitter was part of the administration's virtual "Big Block of Cheese Day." Fans of the television show "The West Wing" will recognize this as a reference to a day when members of the fictional White House's senior staff entertained questions from various groups—such as environmentalists who wanted to create a highway for wolves and a UFO conspiracy theorist. The name is inspired by an open house held by Andrew Jackson's administration in 1837, which featured a 1,400-pound block of cheese in the White House foyer.
Instead of hosting an open house or inviting interest groups into the White House, the Obama White House staff opened their virtual doors. Senior officials took to Twitter, Google Hangouts, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram to answer questions from the public. While this is an obvious PR stunt (complete with its own custom logo!), I still think the idea is pretty neat. The "Big Block of Cheese Day" gave members of the public an opportunity to tell the White House what issues matter to them. And because social media is public, other members of the public (like me) could see the questions too.
Let's take a look at the questions Holdren answered on the OSTP Twitter feed and those he didn't. He answered 10 questions in the 30 minutes he spent on Twitter (not bad for what was probably his first time tweeting). The questions he answered were about the following topics: raising interest in STEM among children, teens, and young men of color; including the arts in STEM and Race to the Top initiatives; developing new forms of energy; funding for climate research and space exploration; expanding non-academic STEM career opportunities; programs for clean tech entrepreneurs; the Polar Vortex; and extraterrestrials entering the Earth's atmosphere. If the last one piques your interest like it piqued mine, check out the White House's response to this issue here: Searching for ET, but no evidence yet.
Questions that weren't answered—whether due to subject or time constraints—included topics such as funding for planetary science (see my previous post about this), cancellation of the space shuttle program, equal access to technology, evidence-based education reform, whether Obama is an Asimov fan, nuclear energy, and reconciling the supposed shortage of STEM-trained workers given the excess of science Ph.Ds. The latter was a popular topic among the people I follow on Twitter—and I actually asked Holdren a related question (it went unanswered). Even though this topic wasn't directly addressed, I like to think that it put a bug in Holdren's ear.
Will this slightly cheesy (har har) yet admirable "Big Block of Cheese Day" become a yearly tradition? I guess we'll have to wait until next year to find out.
— The White House OSTP (@whitehouseostp) January 29, 2014