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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mapping The Intersection Of Politics And Science

President Barack Obama looks through a microscope during his tour the Bio-technology program at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2010. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Barack Obama looks through a microscope during his tour the Bio-technology program at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2010. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

As we head into President Barack Obama’s next four-year term, what are the major issues facing science, scientists and science education?

William Press, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is in Boston for the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting, and sat down with Here & Now to answer some of those questions.

From science education and research funding to climate change and immigration, Press discusses the big picture, and maps out the intersection of politics and science in America.

Interview Highlights

The state of the union of science is…

“It’s essential and it’s threatened. Science is essential because the big issues – the big public policy issues, the ones that the president raised last night – all involve science in a deep way. We have global climate change, we have energy, we have energy independence from foreign sources, we have science education, and more generally in education, we have the question of how are we going to educate a citizenry for a high-technology age that we find ourselves in? So those are all issues which are going to inspire the enterprise of doing science for the benefit of society. At the same time, if the sequestration kicks in, science is genuinely threatened. The sequester would automatically cut $54 billion from federal R&D budget over the next five years. And this is on top of the fact that U.S. research and development has lost 10 percent in real dollars just in the last three years – it hasn’t kept up with inflation. So the president certainly understands this and put it very well in his talk last night when he said now is not the time to gut job-creating investments in science and in innovation. He called for reaching a level of research and development – aggregate in the whole country, including both federal and industry investment – that hasn’t been seen since days of the Space Race. Clearly he believes that science is on the investment part of the ledger that’s going to help the economy, not on the pure expense part of the ledger that’s just something that we have to afford.”

Climate change

“The president in his talk last night called for people to recognize the overwhelming judgment of science on this issue. I think the dynamic that’s changing is we’re coming to see that climate change is not some abstract thing of ‘will the whole globe warm by a couple of degrees over the next 50 years.’ We’re coming to see that climate change is talking about preparedness for possible disasters that are coming – the local and regional disasters – the hurricanes, the storms, the wildfires in the West. I think that the skeptical public, more and more, is simply going to see the evidence in front of them, not in terms of some subtle global measurement, but in terms of some potential disaster, actual disaster, or perhaps near-miss that’s right in front of them, in their town, in their city.”

Politics and science

“It’s hard to imagine people on either side of the political aisle that don’t want the country to be prepared for big storms or prepared for wildfires. The way the climate scientists say this, is there are are two sides to what we have to do. One is mitigation. Mitigation is trying to minimize the future effects of climate change by actions we can take now – most notably, of course, reducing our carbon emissions. But there’s also adaptation, which is essentially preparedness. And it’s preparedness for things that we want to be prepared for, whether or not you believe that climate change is caused by human effects.”

High-tech immigration

“We’ve always been a nation of immigrants, across the board, and the form that that’s taken today is that our high-tech industries rely on high-tech immigration. Again, that’s an issue which spans both sides of the political aisle. You happened to have mentioned Lamar Smith – Lamar Smith is very pro on high-tech immigration. The question is how to do it – from his perspective – in a way that doesn’t lose him his right-wing Republican base. From the president’s progressive agenda point-of-view, it’s a question of how to do it as a part of a comprehensive immigration reform, which is of course what the Democratic base would like to see. There’s not disagreement that it should be done, I think there’s simply disagreement on the political mechanism on how to do it. I was an author of a report by PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, that brought up something that many people have suggested – we ought to have a way of, in effect, stapling a green card to every PhD diploma that comes out of an American university.”

Science education

“There’s a lot of work to be done. We’re not training a new generation that’s going to step in and be the scientists, engineers, technicians, technologists of the future. This is high on the president’s agenda… Another important point is even when we have kids who go into science in their first years in college, the dropout rate, where they move to other college majors, is huge. So, we’re not keeping them interested in science.”

Science funding

“The two big agencies that fund basic science are the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health, and both of those have been criticized – and I think it’s justifiable criticism – for funding science that’s in a zone that is incremental rather than revolutionary; where it is funding well-defined projects rather than funding people and teams who are able to think creatively; and where it tends to be more disciplinary than interdisciplinary. Now these agencies understand that they’re a little bit in a rut on this, and they make efforts to try to move out.”

Gun violence research

“The freeze [on gun violence research] occurred in previous administration, and there has simply been a period where we haven’t been doing the research we need to do on what are the causes and what are the potential strategies for preventing gun violence. Representative Ed Markey from Massachusetts and Representative [Carolyn] Maloney from New York have a long list of co-signers who have proposed a Firearm Safety and Public Health Research Act, which would end the freeze and fund new research on the causes of gun violence.”

Should scientists be more political?

“I think by and large we want scientists to do science. Now, there are different kinds of science. There’s basic and fundamental science, where we really want scientists to follow their instinct for fundamental discovery. At the same time – I wouldn’t call it political, I would call it more entrepreneurial – we want scientists in all fields to be able to recognize, ‘I have this great idea, and if it works out, not only will I learn something new about fundamental biology or how the universe works, but there’s also this piece of it that may be applicable to something. Our best research universities – the MITs, the Stanfords and so on – are recognizing this and are making sure that in the training of scientists, they get some exposure to, not just what does science look like, but what does entrepreneurship look like? What are the paths between basic science and creating new jobs, creating new industries?”


  • William Press, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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  • Fed UP!

    Sick and tire of the stapling of the green card remark. I
    know several people – even with PhD’s in science who haven’t worked since the
    economy tanked. The right wing wants immigrants because they can be more easily

    • Call_Me_Missouri

      Me too.  Not to mention the lack of quality in the imported talent I’ve worked with for the past 20 years.  There are entirely too many smart Americans that need jobs and actually not only speak the language, but they comprehend what they are hearing and respond in a way that indicates their understanding.  SICK of REPEATING MYSELF 10 times to explain SIMPLE CONCEPTS and still thinking…  There’s no way they got that.

  • Call_Me_Missouri

    I have no problem importing talent and increasing Visas but imported talent CANNOT count as MINORITY hiring.  PERIOD.

    An Indian who grew up and was educated in India was NOT A MINORITY in INDIA where they have the option to go home to.

    Until the EEOC changes their EEO-1 reporting requirements to require that companies report the Country of Origin, ie WHERE WERE THEY BORN…  AND change regulations so that Afirmative Action Plans CANNOT include Imported Minorities , we should NOT Increase H1B Visas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ruthmarie.hicks Ruthmarie Garcia Hicks

    I agree with “Fed UP!”  

    Totally fed up with scientist “shortage” myth as well as the “skills mismatch” myth.  Its time  to explode these myths and stop whining about the lack of talent.  You have TONS of talent in the US.  But the pipeline isn’t just leaking, its resembling a water main break.  Why?  You don’t want to pay them piddle. I have a doctorate from a highly respectable medical school – but now I sell real estate and occasionally I adjunct.  The only thing my doctorate has been useful for is the photography skills I learned in the lab.  Pretty pathetic after 15 years at the bench.  But after all those years of “investing” in my career – I saw zero returns on the horizon.  I looked at the future and it was so grim I was wondering if I would be able to afford a cardboard box for my retirement residence.  

    We need to employ OUR OWN FIRST and at REAL WAGES.  The serial post-docs for cheap labor has  to stop and we have to put both academia and industry on a 12-step program to get them off the sauce.  That is their addiction to dirt cheap labor from grad students and post-docs. That’s whats supporting the drive for ever more visas from abroad.  The notion that it will help spur the origination of industry in this country is a canard. 

    That fact that William Press – as head of the AAAS is promoting more of the same abuses is absolutely ludicrous and unsupportable and boggles the mind.   I had hoped the AAAS was not as corrupted by the needs of the few at the top.  Guess I was wrong.  SHAME ON YOU!

  • http://twitter.com/jhayesboh James Hayes-Bohanan

    I love the fact that spatial science — mapping — is included in this the title of this important discussion. Geography education is a key part of STEM education.

  • greenhouse

    Water vapor is the main greenhouse gas by a huge margin.  The problem is, that it’s atmospheric concentration is so highly variable across the globe that it can not be effectively included in any of the climate models, so it is not.  That leaves CO2, which the modelers can just supply a value to be applied globally, and the models can easily estimate what effect changing percentages might have on temperature.  The other problem is that CO2′s effect is minor in comparison to water vapor, so the modeling results are largely meaningless.  But it’s all they have, and they get funded well to keep producing modeled forecasts that show that CO2 is the devil…

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