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Science  30 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5880, pp. 1174-1176
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5880.1174

30 May 2008 Edited by Edward W. Lempinen

As Election Nears, Policy Experts Plan—Cautiously—for S&T Turnaround

A choice for MeCP2.

Lewis M. Branscomb

To many of the experts who gathered this month for the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, the challenge is clear: With the U.S. presidential and congressional elections 6 months away, scientists must engage with the political system to galvanize action on innovation, climate change, energy, and other critical issues.

Politics is not a natural venue for most scientists and engineers, but in 2 days of Forum speeches and presentations, the rough outlines emerged for a pre-election strategy and a post-election agenda. While many expressed frustration at the inaction on some issues in recent years and at the failure of this year's candidates to address science issues, a sense of guarded optimism emerged that the months ahead could yield a fundamental change of course.

Washington's “sustained complacency” must yield to a more comprehensive global vision, veteran science and technology policy expert Lewis M. Branscomb said in AAAS's annual William D. Carey Lecture. “We must have new leadership in the executive branch which recognizes that a broad range of government policies directly affect the nation's power to innovate,” Branscomb said. Beyond education and R&D funding, he urged the White House to use trade and economic policy and infrastructure development to advance innovation.

Former U.S. Rep. John E. Porter, an Illinois Republican who now serves as chairman of the Research!America health research advocacy group, was bluntly critical of the administration of President George W. Bush. Reduced real funding for key federal science agencies and political interference in research have had a “devastating effect,” Porter said. He urged scientists and engineers to redouble efforts to convey the importance of their work to elected officials of both parties and to the public.

The 33rd annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, held just a few blocks from the White House on 8 and 9 May, attracted more than 500 policy-makers from government, education, industry, and other fields, as well as more than two dozen journalists. While topics ranged from science and the new media to the frontiers of human enhancement, discussion returned inevitably to innovation, the 2008 campaign, and scientific engagement.

“The Forum has long provided an occasion for examining the federal investment in R&D,” said Al Teich, director of Science & Policy Programs at AAAS. “Increasingly, however, we have been going well beyond the numbers and taking an in-depth look at the trends and personalities that are shaping the future policy environment for science.”

White House Science Adviser John H. Marburger III defended federal S&T funding, saying in a keynote address that “there cannot be any question that this country has significantly boosted spending on research during this administration.” He also offered advice for the next president, saying that his successor should be appointed as early as possible as the new team begins work.

Porter and others said the S&T community should be at work now to find candidates for top S&T posts in the new administration. Some proposed that the office of the science adviser be a cabinet-level position.

The 2005 AAAS president Gilbert S. Omenn, professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health at the University of Michigan, said the next president “must re-order the priorities of our nation” and “address long-deferred needs in energy, global environment, the economy, the workforce, education, health, and infrastructure.”

The nation's fiscal condition—and especially its mounting bills for Medicare and Medicaid—will make such re-ordering difficult, said Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office. A key problem, Orszag said, is that the nation does little to assess which policies actually work and which don't. Innovative, evidence-based policy could help shape effective initiatives on health care, education, and climate change, he said.

But while much discussion centered on policy and governance, several Forum speakers explored the possibility of a tidal shift in relations between science, political leaders, and the public.

John Kao

John Kao, author of Innovation Nation: How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back, suggested that the next administration must take a leadership role in developing a national narrative that makes research and innovation compelling, even sexy. The United States needs to “mobilize national energy to pursue this agenda, especially among the young,” he said.

R. James Woolsey, a foreign policy expert who served as head of the CIA under President Bill Clinton, detailed how climate change and terrorism—both profound security risks—arise from dependence on oil. In his breakfast address, he imagined a conversation between conservationist John Muir and World War II General George Patton. Where those titans might be expected to clash, the ghosts channeled by Woolsey found much agreement on how a green approach to energy could improve national security.

In the end imagined by Woolsey, Patton and Muir agreed that it could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

See Forum presentations at http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/forum.htm.

—Earl Lane contributed to this report

International UK Innovation Policy Explored at AAAS

As the United States and the United Kingdom grapple with issues of innovation and ethics in the changing global economy, AAAS is using its decades-long partnership with the British S&T community to explore how research can help address the challenges of climate change, global security, and new medical technologies.

John Denham, head of the UK's new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, said at a 21 April AAAS lecture that his government will allocate one-fifth of its science budget over the next 3 years to “grand challenges” such as alternative energy research and new medical training centers. But he emphasized that Britain's push to become an “innovation nation” goes beyond domestic budget maneuvers, saying that international collaborations with the United States will combine “the strength of our research base with those of our partners overseas.”

Sponsored by the AAAS International Office and the British Embassy, Denham's talk was one of the most recent engagement efforts undertaken by AAAS to underscore the importance of the relationship between UK and U.S. scientists and policy-makers. On 15 April, AAAS, the British Embassy, and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics sponsored a meeting by the Hinxton Group, an international ethics consortium, to discuss their recent report on eggs and sperm grown from multipurpose stem cells.

“We value AAAS as a key partner as we continue to deepen the UK-U.S. relationship on science policy issues and in promoting scientific collaboration,” said Brian Ferrar, first secretary for Science and Innovation at the British Embassy, noting that the recent talks “illustrate the breadth of activities where we work together to inform the scientific community about key issues.”

“AAAS values our dynamic and robust relationship with both the British government and its broader science community,” said Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer. “Our work together helps highlight areas where international cooperation between and among scientists can help produce innovative discoveries that benefit society.”

The creation of Denham's department last July by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown “signals a government that is excited by science,” the innovation minister said. His visit to AAAS was part of a recent tour to learn more about American science and innovation policy. While in the United States, Denham also visited Boston and the Research Triangle in North Carolina to see firsthand how research-rich geographic regions develop and sustain themselves.

The new department will also promote public understanding of science, so that people can participate fully in the moral and ethical deliberations surrounding genetically modified organisms and similarly controversial research, Denham said. “If people have the confidence to engage with new technology, they can drive innovation from below,” he suggested.

The meeting of the Hinxton Group steering committee offered a glimpse of one such looming controversy: the possibility of sperm and egg cells grown from multipurpose stem cells within 5 to 15 years, according to a consensus statement released by the group on 14 April in the United Kingdom.

At the AAAS discussion, the group's members said the research could provide new insights into the basic biology of reproductive cells and perhaps lead to new forms of assisted conception. But the work also raises the possibility that a baby might one day be conceived from two laboratory-grown stem cells, one manipulated to become a sperm and the other an egg.

Ruth Faden, executive director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics, said the stem cell research should not be prevented or unnecessarily restricted by moral disagreements about its outcome. Instead, society should do what she called “the hard work to reach sufficient consensus” about the road forward, based on “defensible and public reasons.”

—Molly McElroy, Earl Lane, and Becky Ham

Art of Science Siberian Students Commit to Climate Research

Watercolor on paper by Senya Koyakin, a middle school student in Zhigansk, Siberia.

Image courtesy of the Student Partners Project

In one watercolor, children pluck icicles hanging from a cabin roof, and in another a dog watches as fishermen collect their catch from a net. In a third painting, a bear eyes a plump chipmunk in a vividly green forest. The works, like more than a dozen others displayed at AAAS, share a theme: They focus on Arctic lands and culture, and their creators are Siberian schoolchildren participating in climate research.

The exhibit grew out of a propitious 2003 meeting between Earth system scientist R. Max Holmes of Woods Hole Research Center and 13-year-old Anya Suslova during a research expedition in the remote village of Zhigansk, along Siberia's Lena River. Anya became interested in Holmes' research and he enlisted her help with water sampling. “She blew me away by how quickly she picked things up,” Holmes said.

R. Max Holmes and Anya Suslova

When the expedition ended, Holmes left bottles behind for Anya to continue the sampling. Soon Anya's classmates—ranging in age from 9 to 14—heard about her work and wanted to help. The endeavor became the Student Partners Project, an initiative funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation to advance scientific understanding of Arctic rivers and their role in the changing ecosystem.

Holmes is amazed by the curiosity of the Siberian students, despite their barren classrooms and tattered books. Education is prized there and teachers are valued, he said.

Other Siberian communities, as well as Arctic-dwelling Canadian and Alaskan schools and U.S. schools in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Tennessee have joined the project, which is funded through mid-2009.

Their measurements of the volume and chemical composition of Arctic rivers provide baselines for possible changes due to global warming. Already, Holmes' research team has found a 7% increase since the 1930s in the amount of water emptying from the rivers into the Arctic Ocean. The cause of the increase has not been firmly established, but Holmes contends that it is due to more warm, moisture-filled air from the tropics going north and ending up in the Arctic rivers.

To thank Holmes, the schoolchildren gave him a collection of their artwork, which is on display through 6 June at AAAS. The exhibit is co-sponsored by Woods Hole and is part of the AAAS Art of Science and Technology Program, which showcases the art of science. During a 14 May video-teleconference, the young artists briefly described their work to a AAAS audience.

Anya told the audience that she and her classmates drew frequently while at the Zhigansk school. “We draw what we see, it's our nature,” she explained, referring to the dramatic Siberian landscape. Holmes received another 102 paintings when he visited Siberia this spring, and 11 of them currently are displayed at the United Nations. When the AAAS exhibit closes, the paintings will travel to a new show in Alaska.

Anya, now an 18-year-old college student, attended the AAAS event in person. She described how her climate research with Holmes has shaped her decision to study world economics at Yakutsk State University. “I was good at math and economics, and I liked to listen to policy,” Anya said. “Our nature depends on politics.”

—Molly McElroy

Public Engagement Science Breakthrough on Late Night TV

With science-related issues such as climate change and rising energy costs among the top issues of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, former and current AAAS leaders took to the soundstages of late-night television in April to discuss the topics before a national audience on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Charlie Rose Show.

John P. Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University, addressed the topic of climate change in between jokes about Letterman's “boiling” backyard fishpond during the 17 April airing of The Late Show on CBS. The 2006 AAAS president warned of the accelerating pace of global climate change and dismissed the dwindling number of climate change skeptics who say the Earth's warming is nothing to worry about.

“You wouldn't say, ‘Gee, you know, my usual temperature is 98.6, I've now got 104, but that's only a few degrees, why should I worry about that?'” Holdren said. “The Earth has a fever.”

On the 7 April Charlie Rose Show on PBS, a roundtable of prominent researchers, including Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and 2004 AAAS president, and Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, discussed the “imperative of science” as a way to keep the U.S. competitive in a global economy. In particular, the roundtable agreed that the United States' dominance in S&T research could disappear within a few short decades as a result of what Alberts called “the mess of science education” that emphasizes memorization over dynamic problem-solving skills.

Holdren's appearance on The Late Show can be viewed at http://www.aaas.org/go/lateshow/, and the full episode of the Charlie Rose science roundtable is available at www.aaas.org/go/rose/.

—Becky Ham

Communication Nanotech: A Critical Need For Public Engagement

As the promise and potential risks of nanotechnology emerge into public awareness, science leaders should undertake a concerted communication effort to build public understanding and acceptance, says Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

In remarks before the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus, Malcom said the challenge facing nanotech is one that often accompanies scientific and technological advances: When a breakthrough promises rich potential rewards but also raises ethical and social issues, scientists have to build a connection with the public to provide trustworthy information and to address the concerns.

Malcom served on former U.S. President Bill Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology when the National Nanotechnology Initiative was being developed. Today, she told the caucus, “the public's need to understand the broader impacts and support the research [must be brought] into the center of the discussion.”

Nanotechnology is a process requiring the manipulation of atoms and the assembly of molecules—a process that allows building products or machines in the scale of nano-meters, or billionths of a meter. While nanotechnology has applications from health care and energy to clothing and cosmetics, some researchers have raised questions about environmental problems, social impacts, and other potential consequences.

For members of the baby-boom generation, Malcom said, the current cultural reference point for nanotech might be “The Blob,” a 1958 horror movie about a malicious ball of space protoplasm that tries to take over a small Pennsylvania town.

“Are the powerful stories about the science and engineering available to counter balance the sci-fi films and presentations related to the risk?” she asked. “More recent statements about gray goo, coupled with regulatory failures and the global nature of the science, raise legitimate concerns even among those of us who have worked to understand more about the initiative.”

Malcom said that the Human Genome Project may provide a model for public engagement that could be used for nanotechnology. AAAS in the late 1990s developed a video and published Your Genes, Your Choices, which combined science and personal vignettes in clear, accessible language to convey the meaning and importance of the research.

“The book and video traveled far beyond our anticipated destinations—every educational level from middle school through college, informal venues, and around the world,” Malcom told the Caucus on 31 March. “Requests were received to translate the materials into many other languages, including Icelandic.

“It seems that by bringing people into the story, we struck a chord. They were willing to work a little harder to understand the underlying scientific concepts and to consider that this science could affect their own lives.”

The Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus seeks to promote the development of nanotechnology and to assure that the United States stays competitive in the field.

International Chinese Academy and AAAS Release High-Impact Science Translations

Image courtesy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and AAAS have released a collection of 31 major papers that were published in Science and then translated into Chinese, the first major project completed as part of an emerging engagement between the two organizations.

The book was launched during a ceremony and news conference on 7 May at the Academy's headquarters in Beijing. Published by China Science Press, it features high-impact Science papers from the past decade, selected by distinguished committees from AAAS and CAS that included Science editors and CAS scholars who also were critical to ensuring the quality of the translations. The articles represented fields such as cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry, biomedicine, chemistry, and materials science.

Leaders of the two organizations hailed the publication as a benefit to global science education and as an augur of future cooperative ventures between the Academy and AAAS.

“This achievement is a milestone of the cooperation between CAS and AAAS, and will definitely inspire and promote the innovative research of Chinese young scientists,” Academy President Lu Yongxiang wrote in a letter to Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS. “I look forward to more collaborative opportunities between our two organizations.”

Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, wrote to Lu: “I hope this book will lead to more cutting-edge and innovative science and challenge the minds of those who read it… It is a true indication of the strong relationship that exists between our organizations, and demonstrates the enormous potential for our other collaborative efforts.”

The Academy's group at the ceremony was led by Vice Secretary General Tan Tieniu. AAAS was represented by Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian and Tom Wang, director for International Cooperation.

The publishing project emerged from extended discussions, culminating last September in a memorandum of understanding signed by Lu and Leshner at a meeting in Beijing.

With China emerging as an engine of world research and development, AAAS leaders have seen it as vital for the global scientific enterprise to establish a constructive, long-term engagement with its S&T leaders and organizations. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, founded in 1949, is a powerhouse in Chinese S&T. It oversees 108 scientific research institutes, over 200 science and technology enterprises, a university, a graduate school, and various other units. It publishes more than 200 journals.

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