Breakdown: The New PCAST

DC Science / by Veronique Greenwood & Evan Lerner /

With climate change, an obsolete energy policy, technology that's reshaping the economy, and burgeoning health threats, there will be no dull moments for the new science team.

Today during a speech to the National Academies of Science, President Obama announced the members of the team who will guide him on matters of science throughout his administration. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, founded in 1990 by George H.W. Bush, comprises experts from industry and the academy who range from CEOs of technology companies to heads of universities to distinguished research scientists. Led by environmental policy professor John Holdren, biologist Harold Varmus, and geneticist Eric Lander, Obama’s nominees represent all the varied faces of science and society. But the challenges they face are immense. With rapidly changing climate, an obsolete energy policy, technology that’s reshaping the economy, and burgeoning health threats, there will be no dull moments-and not a moment to lose-for the members of PCAST. Here’s a breakdown of the PCAST members and the issues they face.


The co-chairs of PCAST are three of science’s power players with decades of revolutionary work under their belts. A Harvard professor of environmental policy, Holdren is director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP),
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient. Nobel-winning cancer biologist Varmus is former head of the NIH, cofounder of the Public Library of Science, and head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Lander was the leader of the Public Human Genome Project and the founder of MIT’s Broad Institute, which seeks to connect the information encoded in the human genome with the mechanisms of and cures for disease. Together they will captain PCAST through the coming storm. See Seed’s Revolutionary Minds for more on Varmus and Lander; see The Holdren Factor, by Robert Koenig, for more on Holdren.


PCAST’s climate-change gurus study its causes and effects, seeking insight into planetary systems, and have long histories of involvement in policy. Marine evolutionary biologist Rosina Bierbaum, Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan is the former acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Chemistry Nobel laureate Mario Molina, who served on PCAST during the Clinton administration, discovered the link between chlorofluorocarbons and the hole in the ozone layer. Harvard marine geochemist Daniel Schrag studies the carbon cycle in geological time and was the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.

These scientists have pushed for greater understanding of climate change and might now start collaborating with the social sciences to enact real change. They could look to sociology, psychology, and decision science to undertake the biggest social engineering project of our time. See The Last Experiment, by David Zax, for more.


The proximal cause of climate change is a global energy economy based on fossil fuels; PCAST’s energy experts are leading explorations into alternatives like solar and nuclear power. Ernest J. Moniz, Director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at MIT, studies energy technology and policy pertaining to solar, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, and is the former Undersecretary of the Department of Energy. Vice-president of the National Academy of Engineering, Maxine Savitz, has a long history as an administrator within the federal energy policy apparatus, focusing on the aerospace, transportation, and industrial sectors. Physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shirley Ann Jackson is the former Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A varied energy portfolio is key as we try to move past our addiction to fossil fuels, and the main challenge facing PCAST’s energy team will be deciding which options are feasible. Research is booming: see The Little Lithium Battery That Could, by Michael Eisenstein, for more on extracting greater power from lithium reactions, and see Cribsheet, Seed’s Downloadable Tool for Living in the 21st Century, for more on solar’s state of the art.

Basic Research

For every scientist working directly at the interface of science and society, there are many more delving into fundamental questions about how the universe works. PCAST’s complement of basic research scientists includes Barbara Schaal, the groundbreaking plant geneticist who studies gene flow and is the first female Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences; Egyptian chemistry Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, who pioneered the use of the femtosecond laser to observe molecular bonds; and physicist S. James Gates, Jr., Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park, a prominent supersymmetry researcher and accomplished science communicator.

Pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the wellspring of good science, and these PCAST members represent the basic research juggernaut that feeds and inspires us-the people asking the biggest questions. From the nature of reality to what it means to be a scientist, their work pushes us towards the future; see The Reality Tests, by Joshua Roebke, and Automatic for the People, by Joe Kloc, for more.


The intertwined problems of energy and climate change can’t be understood outside the context of the largest financial crises since the Great Depression. But science can inform finance, and vice versa, by telling us something about how people make economic decisions, as well as what kinds of research investments are likely to bear fruit. PCAST’s economic leaders include Yale University’s President Richard Levin. An accomplished economist in addition to his administrative role, Levin has served on panels to analyze the business models of both the U.S. Post Office and Major League Baseball. There is also David E. Shaw, the computational biochemist and hedge fund manager known as “King Quant” for his application of mathematical principles to investment.

Applying the principles of investment to the environment can have benefits as well. Conservationists are exploring how to apply financial tools and economic value to endangered species as a way of ensuring their survival. See  
Why Environmentalism Needs High Finance by C. Josh Donlan, James Mandel, & Chris Wilcox, for more.

Networks and Security

Nothing epitomizes the interconnectedness of the 21st century like the internet, and Obama has made computer and network technology a touchstone of both his campaign and presidency. But along with data gathering and manipulating the power of these networks come new risks, as evidenced by the recent hacking of information regarding the in-development F-35 fighter plane. 

Balancing the promise and reward of our networked world, Obama has tapped leaders from two of the biggest technology players in the private sector: Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google and Craig Mundie, Chief Research and Strategy Officer at Microsoft. Through Google’s non-profit arm,, Schmidt has marshaled his company’s information-amassing muscle to power projects like Google Flu Trends and RE

William Press serves as a Executive Committee member of the Institute for Defense Analyses, working in the areas of cryptography and information security.  Christopher Chyba also brings security credentials to the table, though his work has been in international biological and nuclear arms control. Beyond his professorships in Astrophysics and International Relations at Princeton, Chyba serves on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee for International Security and Arms Control, or CISAC.
But science can do more than help devise new security strategies; it can be one in itself.  Earlier this year CISAC collaborated with its Chinese counterpart to devise a “Nuclear Security Glossary.” Nuclear scientists from both countries helped each other form better translations of key technical and political concepts, aiming to foster better cooperation through mutual understanding. See Found in Translation, by Lionel Beehner, for more.

Health and Medicine

Healthcare reform has been towards the top of Obama’s to-do list through his political career, but with so many other pressing problems on his plate it hasn’t been a major facet of his first 100 days worth of policy decisions. In that time, however, Obama has called for the implementation of electronic medical records for all Americans and reminded us the power of new research to bring about heretofore unimaginable cures and treatments. PCAST’s health and medicine experts bring both institutional and technological approaches to the table. Christine Cassel, president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine and member of the US Institute of Medicine,  is a noted researcher, author, and advocate for improving patient care especially among the elderly.  Chad Mirkin,  is a leading chemist and nanotechnology pioneer, specializing in the use of nano-particles in diagnostic medicine.

New research could also revolutionize how we think of aging, namely by making it obsolete. Through a compound known as resveratrol and its related genes, scientists are looking to extend life and quality of life farther than ever thought possible. 
See The Achilles Heel of Aging by David Sinclair, for more.

Originally published April 27, 2009

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