On federal science — and science spending

Here are a few snippets from presentations at the Forum on Science and Technology Policy, today — an annual event sponsored by theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science.

from Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee on science spending:

“In the 50 years since World War II, about 50 percent of our GDP” traces to investments in science and technology. So the big increase in spending projected for science in the next couple of years “will be a good investment . . . but we have to be sure that we spend our money wisely.” Toward that end, Congress has “created an umbrella . . . so that we can better coordinate spending” within and between federal agencies, avoiding duplication and ferreting out programs that aren’t living up to their potential.

. . . on education:

“A majority of math teachers in middle schools in this country” don’t have a background in math or certification to teach it. In the physical sciences, the number is “almost 90 percent.” That’s not to put teachers down, Gordon says; his father was put in a similar situation, years ago. “He applied to teach high school . . . but because he was the last teacher hired you can imagine he was assigned to teach science and coach girls’ basketball. . . and 50 years later we’re doing the same thing. That’s got to change.” Which is why Gordon supports the Obama proposal for incentives to develop better trained educators, including “scholarships for those students who want to go into math or science.”

. . . on rekindling appreciation for within the electorate for S&T:

“Science needs to be a part of all decisions,” whether its national security, domestic policy or energy development. So he told meeting participants that “what you have to do is put a face on science.” It’s not enough to lobby for increased funding of science, there also needs to be an explanation of how a particular research project may impact people’s lives. So go to the media and explain what you do and why “to better help us make the public understand that science is really about jobs and the quality of life.”

. . . on ARPA-E — the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy:

“We set it up before the election. We didn’t know who was going to be president . . . so we wanted to [the new administration] real flexibility, so they could set it up . . . and feel ownership [of the program].” The goal was to finance “no bricks and mortar. And there would be a very thin layer of management. In essence you will have . . . [investigations into] five, six, seven or eight of the most cutting-edge types of technology.” Within a few years, grant recipients will have to report what they achieved. And if they don’t have much progress “we’ll pull the plug. Nobody is embarrassed. You just go on to the next one [high-risk, high-payoff project].”

. . . on how to help convert those who don’t believe in science or even evolution:

“We have some of those . . . on our Science Committee. And at home I’d say to pray for them. The good news is that is a diminishing group. . .  Some people truly believe that the Earth is 2,000 years old. . . . But what I’m seeing is this, in the area of climate change,” even people who said they didn’t believe in it now are coming around to accept it.

from John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, on climate:

“In this administration, the voices of the climate-science community are being heard. . . . [although] there is much we still need to understand about the details.” That said, Holdren maintains that the president accepts conclusions of the mainstream climate-research community about “what climate science is telling us.” And in this area, “the biggest challenge,” the science adviser says, is determining what the policy objectives should be instituted to limit global change. But make no mistake, he says, it’s time America become “a leader” in addressing climate issues, “not just a laggard.”

U.N. climate change negotiations will take place later this year in Copenhagen, “whether anything goes through Congress or not. But obviously the United States will be in a better position in Copenhagen if the Congress passes — and the president has signed — climate legislation before then. Obviously, that’s a great challenge, because there’s not a lot of time. Certainly the U.S. [climate-policy team] will go to Copenhagen either way. But I think we’ll have a stronger hand in Copenhagen if we have domestic climate legislation in place.”

. . . and on when the new scientific-integrity guidelines will come out:

“The due date is July 9. The executive order gave us 120 days. There’ll be a version posted for public comment. I think the target for that is . . . June 21.” When it actually emerges “might be a little sooner.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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