The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences held its 36th annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy on May 5 and 6. Over 400 participants took part in a series of lectures, panel discussions, and informal briefings during the conference, held at the Ronald Reagan building in downtown Washington D.C.
Headlining the list of notable speakers was John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In his speech, Holdren emphasized that science and technology were central to the national agenda, linking technical issues such as energy and climate change to political issues such as national security and the economy. He added that President Obama had been devoted to promoting science in his administration, drawing attention to the spending increases put forth in the FY12 budget proposal for science agencies, highlighting appointments of prominent scientists to administration posts, and describing in detail a number of “crucial” programs initiated or extended by the President. Holdren specifically identified Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education as a “fundamental foundation” for the entire scientific enterprise, and pointed to Presidential initiatives, such as Race for the Top, that focused on supporting this area.
The first day of the conference featured a talks ranging from National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh to U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, along with panel discussions on Communicating Science for Policy, Emerging Issues in Scientific Integrity, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The day culminated with a sobering talk from Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering. Dr. Vest, who has served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and co-authored the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, focused his talk on declining American superiority in numerous fields, ranging from life expectancy to high school literacy rates. In addition, he pointed out that failures to invest in both research and education were likely to exacerbate the problem in future generations, turning America from a leader into a laggard.
Day two of the conference kicked off with a breakfast speech from Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci described his role in the HIV epidemic, from the initial diagnoses to his ability to use his connections in the government to push for greater funding for basic research. He praised administrations going back to Ronald Reagan for their non-partisan approach to address the issue, but also pointed to the importance of activists and advocacy organizations.
The theme for the morning panel discussion was innovation. Speakers Rich Bendis and Rob Atkinson emphasized the need for innovation, while also criticizing the United States for its lack of focus on innovation. Atkinson cited the failure of the government to formulate a National Science Strategy or even create a National Innovation Agency. Meanwhile, Bendis felt that funding should be re-purposed for innovation, rather than technology, specifically advocating for increases in the set-asides for the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. Fellow panelists Deborah Amidon and David Hart both emphasized the need for collaboration, in particular across regions and states. Economist Michael Mandel pointed to the need to reduce regulation in order to promote innovation, stating that the government had increased the number of regulatory employees at the expense of other sectors.
Following a lunchtime speech from Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Greg Jaczko, the conference finished with a panel discussion on the research university enterprise. Toby Smith from the Association of American Universities described the core issue as a question of how many universities are necessary to maintain research quality, compared with how many we as a country are willing to support. From his perspective, the research enterprise as a whole had become fragmented, thus weakening support for the overall system, especially in terms of the partnership between universities and the government. He outlined trends he felt were unsustainable, including regulatory requirements for faculty members, the graduate training experience, and a general broadening of research (such as translational research) that distracted from the main goal of universities. However, he felt that support for research, infrastructure and education, especially from government funding, was not only necessary and sustainable, but should be expanded going forward.
Deborah Stewart from the Council of Graduate Schools agreed that the current graduate education system was unsustainable. Instead, she felt that it was necessary for institutions to clarify the goals and expected outcomes from degree programs, especially given that more than half of students end up in non-academic careers. Finally, Irwin Feller from Pennsylvania State University spoke on the connection between public and private universities, focusing on the decreased state-level financial support for public schools. In his opinion, this trend had lead to an increased share of funding for private universities, concentrating research at a select number of institutions. In conjunction with the previous two speakers, Dr. Feller emphasized that proper training of graduate students was fundamentally more important than expansion of the research enterprise.
The major themes arising from the conference were a need for innovation and a reassessment of the research enterprise, especially graduate student training. In order to ultimately capitalize on the momentum generated from the various formal and informal discussions, the entire scientific community will need to synthesize the diverse interests of the participants into a cogent strategy that is both economically and politically feasible. Hopefully, the wheels will be in motion by the time the 37th edition of the Forum commences in 2012.