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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PCAST may become more activist, especially if the issues considered by the panel come from both the White House and the scientific community, as the three new co-chairs say they will. But history suggests a more unidirectional orientation. A panel composed of distinguished authorities advising on scientific policy issues was initiated under President Harry S. Truman, who set up the Science Advisory Committee in 1951 as part of the Office of Defense Mobilization during the Korean War. President Dwight D. Eisenhower upgraded the panel, relocated it to the White House, and christened it the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), after the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellites in the fall of 1957. PSAC’s purpose was to provide advisory opinions and analysis on science and technology matters of interest to the president. Half of the panel’s studies were related to national security, especially how best to compete with the Soviets’ science and technology.

PSAC’s influence continued to rise during the science-friendly administrations of presidents Kennedy and Johnson, however the Nixon Administration marked a dramatic reversal. President Nixon tended to distrust intellectuals and had rocky relationships with scientists; he often bypassed White House science staffers, virtually ignored his science adviser, and alienated some of the nation’s top research organizations. Early in 1973, Nixon—suspecting a “viper’s nest” of dissent among his scientific advisers on divisive issues like the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam—abolished PSAC, and “all but exiled Washington’s scientific establishment,” as Time magazine reported at the time.

Another two decades passed before PCAST re-emerged under President George H.W. Bush in 1990 with its current name. PCAST’s influence has since waxed and waned during the ensuing Clinton and younger Bush years.

Striving for an activist PCAST will not likely prompt Obama to abolish it, as Nixon did, but it could potentially lead to an irrelevant panel. One key to making PCAST influential, experts say, is choosing topics that mesh with the White House agenda. Obama has given a number of indications of what those topics should be. During his speech at the National Academy of Science, he promised to “work closely” with PCAST on several key issues, naming biomedicine, environmental science, energy, and global scientific and technological cooperation.

Look for these issues to dominate what PCAST does. Varmus said recently that he expects PCAST will “take an interest” in healthcare reform because it “is such an integral part of what President Obama views as the future of the country.” Obama also called energy research “this generation’s great project.” PCAST member Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair, says “energy security is [the] ‘space race’ of this millennium.” Jackson told SEEDMAGAZINE.COM she is looking forward to working on Obama’s PCAST with energy issues and finding ways to address the “quiet crisis” of the nation’s failure to produce enough scientists and engineers to meet growing demands.

Obama’s PCAST is likely to look outward as well as inward. “We also need to work with our friends around the world,” he told the Academy. “Science, technology and innovation proceed more rapidly and more cost-effectively when insights, costs and risks are shared; and so many of the challenges that science and technology will help us meet are global in character,” such as climate change and global epidemics. At least two members should help guide PCAST on such issues: Mexican-born Nobelist Mario Molina and Ahmed Zewail. Molina, a chemist at the University of California San Diego who also holds appointments at the Scripps Center for Atmospheric Sciences, as well as the Center for Energy and the Environment in Mexico City, served on Clinton’s PCAST and has been active in international and Mexican efforts to promote science.  Zewail, the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry at Cal Tech, has also worked to improve scientific research in his native Egypt. “I believe that science is the international language of unity,” Zewail said. “And through science and education, the United States can help many developing countries and, in fact, make the world a more peaceful one.”

The composition of this new PCAST appears to be in line with the president’s priorities. This should be enough to earn them influence. Whether that influence will be accompanied by the independence and the trust necessary to truly challenge and shape Obama’s thinking, to weigh in on issues such as those, including national security issues, that the outgoing Clinton PCAST singled out, and to contribute in ways that the president did not mention in his academy speech, is yet to be revealed.

Originally published May 27, 2009

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