Recasting PCAST

DC Science / by Robert Koenig /

With the historically debatable efficacy of science councils, will the White House’s new science-advisory super-team prove relevant?

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Over the last six decades, the White House has been a hothouse for efforts to cultivate science councils that graft the president’s need for sound advice with the scientific community’s desire for political access. Those experiments have yielded stunted varieties, one extermination, a few partial successes, and—during the administration of President George W. Bush—a weedy and un-pruned variant that grew irrelevant.

However, there is hope again that the experiment may finally have produced a hardy and useful variety of PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Obama has not only promised a strong commitment to science, setting a positive general tone for his administration, he has created what could prove to be a science-advisory super-team. On April 27 he named a distinguished PCAST group that includes the three Nobel laureates, four MacArthur Prize fellows, two university presidents, and 14 members of the national scientific, engineering, or medical academies, as well as Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, and Microsoft’s research chief, Craig Mundie. Physicist Neal Lane, a White House science adviser to President Clinton, says the new PCAST “is a stellar group and diverse, in my view, in all important ways.” The initial signals for PCAST have been positive.

But the Obama Administration’s slowness in appointing many science-related positions has tempered some of the high expectations engendered by Obama’s election, and the checkered past of the White House advisory councils themselves provide an important cautionary tale. Whether Obama’s PCAST will be influential will depend on how far the president “walks the walk” on science, as well as how much John Holdren—Obama’s science adviser, head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a co-chair of PCAST—is able to respond to the misfortunes of bygone science panels.

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Past PCASTs have not shied away from discussing why the influence of the groups has been circumscribed. Both the Clinton and Bush councils left memos to their successors detailing what the next panel needed in order to realize the potential contributions of its members. The members of President Clinton’s PCAST—which included three members of Obama’s current panel, including Holdren—felt they lacked access to the president and vice president. In the memo, they called for the group to have more influence on major issues, especially those involving national security. President Clinton’s former PCAST also sought support from OSTP staff to facilitate more interaction with groups such as the National Security Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress; and called for more dialogue between PCAST and the National Science and Technology Council, which helps coordinate science and technology policy across federal government research agencies.

That didn’t happen during the administration of President George W. Bush; His PCAST averaged only three meetings a year and churned out reports that were seldom newsworthy. Like Clinton’s PCAST before, the Bush Administration’s PCAST sent a memo to its successors. Among other things listed in the memo, they recommended a smaller, more science-focused council—under Bush it had grown to an unwieldy 34 members, mostly from industry.

Holdren has been able to fix a few of those problems already. Consulting with the White House, Holdren and his PCAST co-chairs—Harold Varmus, now president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and genomics researcher Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge—has limited the new advisory council to 20 and has attempted to upgrade the scientific status of its members. Lander, who helped lead the public project to sequence the human genome, told SEEDMAGAZINE.COM that he, Varmus, and Holdren had recommended in December that PCAST be trimmed to a manageable size, and that its members hold excellent scientific credentials. “This should be a very responsive and respected group,” he said. Likewise, Holdren says the new PCAST will be “more agile and responsive.”

Whether the new PCAST can accomplish more will depend on money and the White House. PCAST is staffed by OSTP, and at times PCAST has been hampered by insufficient staff assistance and a shortage of funds for travel and expenses. The budget request for the coming fiscal year offers few hints, calling for an increase in the OSTP budget to $6.1 million from the current $5.3 million, and indicating that OSTP staff would increase to 40 from 31 staffers. There is no separate breakdown for PCAST staffing or budget, but sources say the OSTP hopes to hire at least one staffer who would be assigned mainly to PCAST duties.

The toughest task lies in ensuring that PCAST gains the ear of the president. Although Obama and Holdren reportedly wish to make PCAST more influential, nearly a month has passed since its members were named, and the science council has yet to meet with President Obama. During his appearance at the National Academy of Sciences, Obama said he wanted his PCAST members to represent “a diversity of experiences and views,” and that he hopes for “a vigorous external advisory council that will shape my thinking on scientific aspects of my policy priorities.” Time will tell.

“During the Clinton and [George W.] Bush administrations, PCAST tended to report on issues that interested the president and not necessarily on issues that PCAST members felt needed to be addressed,” says Charles M. Vest, the current head of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of PCAST under both Clinton and the younger Bush. Vest told SEEDMAGAZINE.COM that the council “should become a more activist organization.”

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