Mapping The Intersection Of Politics And Science

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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.

This segment aired on February 13, 2013.


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