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Obama adviser weighs ‘the rightful place of science’

11:59am, May 21, 2010
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Obama adviser weighs ‘the rightful place of science’ by Eric S. Lander

In an address to scientists attending the 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, genomics researcher Eric S. Lander, a cochair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., discussed science and technology policy in the United States. Susan Gaidos, a Science News contributing correspondent, compiled some of his comments and observations, starting with Lander’s interpretation of a passage from the president’s 2008 inaugural address.

The president spoke about the economic crisis that was gripping the nation…. He said … “the state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift … we will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.”

What is the rightful place of science?

As seen from the first year of the administration, its rightful place is in the president’s cabinet and policy making; in the nation’s classrooms; as an engine to propel the American economy; as a critical investment in the federal budget, even in times of austerity; as a tool for diplomacy and international understanding and as an organizing principle for space exploration.

There is a responsibility to engage actively in the stewardship of science and technology. Science doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of social systems that promote innovation and exploration. There are also important choices about the balance of projects to be supported. There’s curiosity-driven, individual investigator projects. There are projects aimed at tackling well-identified needs, projects at creating shared infrastructure.… The point is that different approaches to the funding of science call forth different sorts of innovation and different sorts of energy. And together they shape an ecosystem of scientific innovation, from early discovery to long-term public benefit.

The second responsibility that has become apparent to me as I’ve been exposed to some of this over the past year is the need to engage actively with economists. Scientists are often reluctant to talk about the practicality of science. We shouldn’t be. The reason that this administration and past administrations have vigorously supported science is not simply because of the beauty of scientific knowledge, although this is true and very important. But [the investment] is justified, at least in significant part, because of its eventual social product. Science drives the innovation that provides productivity and growth for the future economy, and it also adds to our quality of life in many ways.

Finally, to engage with education. We need to engage much more vigorously in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. We do in fact need to focus on this to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers who will press the frontiers of knowledge and transform our economy. But more than that, as the president remarked, it’s having an informed citizenry in an era when so many problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems. As individuals and institutions we need to be engaged in supporting STEM education, including supporting teachers and serving as teachers ourselves. Because in the end education depends on great teachers, and in supporting the growing state-led movement to adopt common math and science standards and assessments.

In addition, I think we’re entering upon an era when technology can propel enormous progress in STEM education. For the most part, educational technology has been disappointing. There are, of course, good lectures to be found on the Web and good materials, but they’re scattered and uneven and unintegrated. A student has to be mighty motivated to truly learn from the materials on the Web. We need new kinds of technology platforms on the Web to make it possible to integrate content from many sources: text and video, and simulations of problems and adaptive tutoring systems. Ideally, much of it open-source so that they can be mashed and repurposed and continually improved. And we need built-in ways to measure and reward their effectiveness. It’s going to require efforts from both the not-for-profit and the for-profit sectors. But if done right, we ought to be able to call forth enormous creative energies from the entire science and technology community.

We stand in a unique moment in the relationship of science and technology with government. The administration has made an unprecedented commitment to science and technology, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure that we deliver on that promise to the American people and to humankind.

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