News this Week

Science  26 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6144, pp. 324
  1. Around the World

    1 - St. Louis, Missouri
    Monsanto Withdraws E.U. Patent Applications
    2 - Washington, D.C.
    FDA Approves First Medical Device for ADHD Diagnosis
    3 - Paris
    Looser Restrictions on Human Embryo Research
    4 - New Delhi
    Scientists: Freeze GM Trials
    5 - Washington, D.C.
    DOE Science Gets a New Look

    St. Louis, Missouri

    Monsanto Withdraws E.U. Patent Applications

    No grow.

    Protestors in London marched against Monsanto and GM crops in May.

    CREDIT: ANDRES PANTOJA/DEMOTIX/CORBIS

    In the wake of widespread opposition in Europe to genetically modified (GM) crops—including worldwide protests in May—biotech giant Monsanto announced on 17 July that it would withdraw pending applications for a handful of GM crops in the European Union, including several varieties of corn, a soybean variety, and a sugar beet. The decision, Monsanto president and Managing Director for Europe Jose Manuel Madero told Reuters, would allow the company to focus on its conventional seeds business in Europe. "[W]e are funding the business in a way that we haven't done for more than 15 years," he said. The company will not withdraw its application to renew the approval for insect-resistant MON810 maize, which was originally granted in 1998. MON810 is the only GM crop now grown commercially in Europe, although France, Germany, and Italy have imposed national bans on MON810 maize.

    Washington, D.C.

    FDA Approves First Medical Device for ADHD Diagnosis

    The first medical device for diagnosing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children 6 to 17 years old was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week. Called the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA), the device measures electrical brain activity through electrodes on the scalp and calculates the ratio of "theta" waves—oscillations in neural firing at frequencies of 4 to 8 hertz—to "beta" waves, which pulse at 13 to 30 hertz. "A couple of decades of research" link a higher proportion of theta activity to beta activity to ADHD in children and adolescents, says Francisco Xavier Castellanos, a child psychiatrist at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City.

    Although some researchers are skeptical of the ratio as a diagnostic tool, Castellanos says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the device will help clinicians correctly diagnose the disorder, which affects roughly 3% to 7% of school-aged children in the United States. FDA emphasizes that the device is not intended to be used alone to diagnose ADHD, but as part of a "multistep process based on a complete medical and psychiatric exam."

    Paris

    Looser Restrictions on Human Embryo Research

    CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/RYDDRAGYN

    The French National Assembly on 16 July approved a new law that aims to ease regulation of research involving human embryos and embryonic stem cells. The new law will permit such research provided it meets four criteria: that it has "scientific relevance"; that it is performed toward "a medical end"; that it "cannot be done without resorting to these embryos or the embryonic stem cells"; and that it respects ethical principles.

    The change effectively reverses the French government's stance toward human embryo and stem cell research. Existing law essentially banned such research unless scientists could show government regulators that there was no other source of cells for their experiments and that the studies could lead to major medical advances.

    French researchers say that the shift will bring little immediate change to their day-to-day work, but they hope that the new law will bring more academic freedom and collaboration and that it might make it easier for French researchers to work with industry partners interested in testing therapies derived from human embryo research. http://scim.ag/Franceembryo

    New Delhi

    Scientists: Freeze GM Trials

    A six-member panel of scientists appointed by India's Supreme Court is seeking a moratorium on open field trials of genetically modified organisms (GMO) pending changes to India's regulatory system. The panel's report, made public on 22 July, states that the system "has major gaps and these will require rethinking, investment and relearning to fix."

    The panel is calling for mandatory "chronic and trans-generational toxicity studies" on rodents and faults the regulatory system for permitting field tests on GM crops like rice and brinjal, or eggplant, because "contamination" of native varieties "can't be ruled out."

    If accepted by the court, a moratorium could be the "death knell for all research on genetic modification in India," says Swapan Dutta, chief of crop research at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in New Delhi. The court will next seek a response from the government.

    Washington, D.C.

    DOE Science Gets a New Look

    U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has pulled the trigger on a major shakeup of how the Department of Energy (DOE) manages its research programs. In an 18 July memo, Moniz announced that he will merge management of DOE's science and energy programs under a single undersecretary, who will also oversee the majority of the department's 17 national laboratories. "We must have the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment," Moniz wrote.

    Strengthening those linkages is especially important for deploying the clean energy technologies at the heart of efforts to combat climate change, he added. Moniz didn't say who is in line to get the new undersecretary job, which will oversee some $6 billion in research spending. But the move is getting good reviews from an array of outside groups, who have criticized a 2005 decision to split the energy and science portfolios between two undersecretaries (Science, 12 July, p. 119).

  2. Random Sample

    Noted

    The National Science Foundation announced 13 winners of its $10,000 BREAD (Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development) Ideas Challenge on 16 July. Hundreds of agriculture researchers posed ideas for the most pressing issues facing small farms in developing countries. Among the winning challenges: proposals to find new ways to use gut biota in livestock to improve animal health and to create "tunable" soil microbe populations.

    Worldwide Disease, by the Numbers

    CREDIT: (SOURCES) WHO AND IHME

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has just released its Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report for 2011. After all the debate about differences between WHO estimates and those of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, Washington, released last year, their estimates of the top 10 causes of death look very similar (Science, 14 December 2012, p. 1414). Both organizations agree on nine of the 10 biggest killers, although they rank them in slightly different orders. The biggest discrepancy is prematurity, which WHO ranks as 10 and IHME as 15. (WHO figures are for 2011; IHME for 2010.)

    Modern Trackers Decipher Ancient Footsteps

    CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF COLOGNE (2)

    The Namibian San people are renowned trackers, deciphering footprints as a way of life. And these traditional skills can be a boon to archaeologists seeking expert opinions on cave footprints.

    Conventional footprint analysis focuses on individual prints but leaves the context to the imagination of archeologists, says Andreas Pastoors, a prehistorian at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. Pastoors, who has studied cave art in the French Pyrenees since 1988, turned his gaze to the ground this month, hoping to give life to 17,000-year-old footprints left on the floor of the caves.

    In a pilot test this month, Pastoors and colleagues brought a trio of footprint-trackers of the Namibian San tribe to four caves nestled in the mountains. After just a few hours in each cave, the team challenged conventional wisdom about some of the footprints.

    One print , long regarded as the only ice age shoeprint, was instead the product of a bare foot, the trackers declared. They demystified another track, traditionally interpreted as a ritual dance, as belonging to a child and an adult fetching clay; the footprints in one direction were deeper, hinting that the two were carrying a heavy load in that direction. Pastoors recorded the trackers' conversations to study how they arrive at their conclusions. He plans to take the San back to the caves to do more thorough analyses.

    This approach is a "great idea," says Michael Hofreiter, an evolutionary biologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. The San's interpretations, he adds, are more believable than the "fantasies" of archeologists.

  3. Indispensable Outsider

    1. Ann Finkbeiner*

    Richard Garwin has helped advise U.S. presidents, IBM, and secret agencies on how to make things work.

    Frequent visitor.

    Garwin has been a White House adviser off and on since the 1950s.

    CREDIT: ANAND KAMALAKAR

    The first thing anybody says about the physicist/inventor/adviser Richard Garwin is that his graduate school adviser 60 years ago, Enrico Fermi, said that he was the only true genius he'd met. The next thing is that Garwin has advised, sometimes impolitically, every administration since Eisenhower's on every possible technical issue. The third thing is the Garwin joke: It's the French Revolution, an aristocrat is placed in the guillotine, the blade won't drop, "God's will," says the guillotiner, and lets the aristocrat go free; next aristocrat, same thing, blade sticks, "God's will," goes free. The next in line is Garwin, who looks up at the blade and says, "Oh, I see the problem."

    Garwin himself agrees that the third, an old joke, could have been written for him. He is a compulsive problem-solver—although his solutions occasionally raise other problems. Prime example: In 1951, Garwin was 23 years old and the hydrogen bomb, which worked only in theory, needed proof. So in a few weeks, Garwin designed an experiment, and a year later Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had built it and called it Mike, then had taken it to Eniwetok in the South Pacific and set it off. The 11-megaton explosion was 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that flattened two-thirds of Hiroshima. Garwin didn't watch it—he was busy working on more portable H-bombs—and in fact has never seen a nuclear explosion. "I don't need it," he told an interviewer. "I have a good imagination."

    Garwin went on to an astonishingly varied career that included fundamental contributions to particle physics, a 41-year career in industry, 47 patented inventions, and 60 years of advising multiple parts of the U.S. government on multiple technical issues. "He's done so damn many things," says Peter Zimmerman, formerly chief scientist at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "that it's hard to single out any one."

    Garwin advised then–Energy Secretary Steven Chu on alternatives for dealing with the Fukushima nuclear plant's meltdown in 2011 and on plugging the BP oil well blowout in 2010. In 1981, Garwin pioneered gesture recognition for a touch screen, on the IBM color PC monitor. In 1969, he invented the tensioned cables that would hold a deepwater floating airport steady in large waves; floating airports were never built, but the approach was used for oil-drilling platforms. Since 1968, he's been writing about handling data in health care. The upshot: He is one of 13 people in the world who is a member of all three U.S. National Academies: science, engineering, and medicine.

    Nothing ties these fields and functions together, no single intellectual thread. Garwin just likes being useful, he says, and helps solve problems as they arise. And if his solution to a problem causes another problem, then he solves that one, too. If a coherent narrative can be imposed on Garwin at all, it is that having solved the hydrogen bomb, he has spent the last 6 decades working to help governments control it.

    Precise design

    Richard Lawrence Garwin was born in 1928, in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from what is now Case Western Reserve University in 3 years, working in his father's sound equipment repair business, and marrying a local girl. In 1947, he moved to the University of Chicago where, in 1949, he received his Ph.D. with Fermi on the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei.

    Garwin stayed on at Chicago as an instructor and in 1950 began spending summers consulting at Los Alamos because, as he said, the university paid its faculty members for 9 months but his family ate for 12. In his second summer there, Edward Teller, also at Chicago and consulting at Los Alamos, told him that he and Los Alamos physicist Stanislaw Ulam had a theory that an atomic bomb could be used to trigger a hydrogen bomb, but the theory needed a proof-of-principle. Garwin thought through the options—the configurations, dimensions, and materials that would focus the radiation of an atomic bomb "primary" and trigger thermonuclear fusion in the "secondary"—and decided that designing a real bomb would be just as easy. The Mike test worked, Teller said, "almost precisely" as designed. Later, when Teller got credit for fathering the H-bomb, Garwin didn't argue: By then Garwin had learned, as he said, that when serving the government you could either get something done or get credit for it, but not both.

    Meanwhile, particle physics was becoming a science of large teams, large machines, and long waits for experiments, none of which Garwin found agreeable. So in 1952, he took a job at IBM's Watson Scientific Laboratory, then in New York City, where he could, he said, "decide one day what I was going to do the next day." At IBM he worked on everything from the properties of materials under extremely cold conditions, to prototypes of computers controllable by gaze, to the little accelerometer that protects the brains of laptops or other smart devices when they're dropped. In 1957, he took leave from an IBM project to develop a superconducting computer, and with Leon Lederman conceived and conducted, in 4 days, an experiment on the radioactive decay of mu mesons that has become part of the modern view of particle physics.

    The same year Garwin joined IBM, he was introduced for the first time to the cadre of academics advising the government on science and technology. Centered at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it included engineer Jerome Wiesner, John F. Kennedy's science adviser, who in 1957 asked Garwin to join the newly forming President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Garwin served an unusual two 4-year terms on PSAC and led several of its panels, in particular, those looking into ballistic missile threats and military aircraft. He helped lay the basis for GPS, drone aircraft, and the electronic battlefield. "I learned a lot," he said.

    PSAC also helped Garwin define his ideal job: sitting in a room for 8 hours while generals, admirals, scientists, and corporations explained their problems and he and the rest of the panel proposed answers. He later found the same congenial setting when he joined a secret government advisory group called JASON, also made up of mostly academic scientists. Garwin and IBM had agreed from the start that his job would include spending a third of his time giving advice to the government.

    Often that time was devoted to highly classified "black" programs, which bypass open peer review or qualified congressional oversight, making the advice of independent scientists especially valuable. Since the early 1960s, Garwin worked on several types of spy satellites, though he won't say exactly what he did or for whom. Some satellites, whose names haven't been declassified and which Garwin talked National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger into backing, used charge-coupled devices that stored images and sent them back via radio. These satellites' sensitivity to light needed improving. Still others, like the Poppy series, collected not images, but radar signals showing the locations, frequencies, and ranges of Soviet radars. Garwin helped Poppy "a lot," he says, "because I asked, 'Is this how it works?' And they said, 'No, that's not how it works.' And I said, 'Why doesn't it work that way?' And they made it work that way."

    Garwin thinks he's been most useful to black programs at the CIA and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Apparently they agreed: The CIA awarded him the R.V. Jones award, and NRO declared him one of the 10 Founders of National Reconnaisance. Garwin's special contribution to the intelligence community, says Robert A. McDonald, director of NRO's Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance in Virginia, is that he pushed them to "stretch their technological limits," and gave them, not the answers they wanted, but "independent, no-holds-barred assessments."

    Mass destruction

    The issue on which Garwin has worked most intently is arms control—the natural consequence of an involvement with the hydrogen bomb. One way or another, he has helped shape all the treaties to ban nuclear weapons tests since the first treaty talks in 1958. He helped convince President Kennedy to put controls, called Permissive Action Links (PALs), on U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe so that they couldn't be exploded without authority. (Talking later to a Russian scientist at CISAC, the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security and Arms Control, Garwin found out the Russians didn't then have PALs on their bombs in Cuba either.)

    Unlike his old friend and colleague Sidney Drell, now retired from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, Garwin isn't trying to take nuclear weapons down to zero: "I don't see the elimination of nuclear weapons," Garwin says, "or even a path in that direction." He's against proliferation of weapons to any countries that don't have them. He's for the immediate reduction in numbers of weapons and further reductions in the future, from the current 5000 in the United States and 17,000 or so worldwide—a point at which, he says, the weapons are more numerous than their targets—down to a few hundred, "enough for any conceivable purpose."

    Since 1992, Garwin has worked on nearly every JASON report on the health of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile, most notably the 1995 report certifying that the weapons were a reliable deterrent without having to be tested and that, yes, the country could sign the international Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Noting that he "had a lot to do" with nuclear weapons himself, Garwin said of the JASON report, "I am most pleased to be an author of this document."

    Garwin also works on the other half of controlling weapons: missile defense. He's advised, written, and testified on its myriad aspects since 1968, when he and Hans Bethe wrote an article for Scientific American outlining the pros and cons that have been debated ever since. He continued arguing through the 1980s debates on Star Wars, the Reagan administration's idea for space-based defenses. He helped write the so-called Rumsfeld report in 1998 on the missile threat from "rogue states," which missile defense advocates later used to support their views—to Garwin's annoyance but not astonishment. These days, he's arguing with the National Academies' 2012 report on missile defense. The report recommends new radars, which Garwin says would be inadequate to distinguish incoming missiles from decoys. "If you feel compelled to have a missile defense because you've always said missile defense is necessary," he told an interviewer, "go ahead, have a missile defense. But don't spend very much money on it, and don't lie about its performance."

    Scrubber.

    Garwin's mussel washer is one of his 47 inventions covered by U.S. patents.

    CREDIT: U.S. PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE

    Category of one

    If Garwin's advice has a flaw, some of his peers say, it's a sporadic tone-deafness to human or institutional realities. For example, his proposal to intercept enemy missiles during their more targetable boost phase by basing the missile defenses close to potential attackers, such as North Korea, is probably not going to win Chinese or Russian approval. And testifying in Congress against the Nixon administration's plan for a supersonic transport plane, as Garwin did in 1970 while sitting on PSAC, was never in the playbook for presidential advisers. It has been cited as a reason that Richard Nixon disbanded PSAC.

    The occasional tone-deafness, says Raymond Jeanloz, a geophysicist and fellow arms-controller at the University of California, Berkeley, doesn't mean that Garwin loses credibility among his advisees. He's showing politicians what, if politics could be sidestepped, might then be possible—"maybe we should be asking whether we could deploy missiles near Vladivostok," Jeanloz says. "He's saying, 'You policymakers have to realize you're excluding a universe of possible solutions.'" The approach is peculiarly Garwinian, Jeanloz says: "He's one of the few people who can get away with it."

    Garwin turned 85 this year. Some days he goes to his emeritus office at IBM and dresses in good khakis; when he's working from home, he dresses in older khakis; he wears a tie to go to Washington. He uses public transportation and carries the routes and schedules in his head. He's moved from his home of 55 years because he could no longer climb out to fix the roof and now lives in a modest apartment with the wife he married when they were teens. For lunch when he's at home, his wife often cuts up a fresh pineapple, which they eat for dessert for several days.

    "I've never seen him down in the dumps," says Philip Coyle, who was an associate director at Obama's White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) where Garwin is a consultant. "Nothing sets him back." In 2002, he won the National Medal of Science. He gets 40 to 60 e-mails per day—on CISAC, JASON, OSTP, and occasionally intelligence business—and only about 10 per Saturday or Sunday. Garwin says that he could stop doing all he does and devote himself to his hobbies, if he had hobbies; or he could go back to science, "but it is unlikely that I would make any significant contributions at this stage," and so, when he sees any probability of a good outcome, he says, "I prefer to do what I have been doing for a long time."

    Maybe that's another result of helping the hydrogen bomb into the world: never being able to give up. Drell says that politics will have so large a part in solving the problem of missile defense that he himself has quit arguing about it—but that, he says, is "a cop-out by Sid Drell. Dick Garwin never cops out." William Press, at the University of Texas, Austin, and current member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology who has worked with Garwin since 1977, says that whenever he tries to duck out of some issue, "I hear Dick's voice—'Bill, those things don't just happen. It's people like me who make them happen.'"

    A Restless Mind

    1951–1952

    CREDIT: BY THE OFFICIAL CTBTO PHOTOSTREAM [CC-BY-2.0 (HTTP://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY/2.0)], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    Designs experiment for"Mike" H-bomb test

    1952–on

    CREDIT: IBM ARCHIVES

    IBM Watson Scientific Laboratory researcher

    1957

    With Leon Lederman, mu meson experiment

    1960s

    CREDIT: BBY NATIONAL RECONNAISSANCE OFFICE (NRO) (HTTP://WWW.NRO.GOV/NEWS/PRESS/2005/2005-06.PDF) [PUBLIC DOMAIN], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    "Poppy" surveillance satellite work

    1963

    CREDIT: STEVEN G. JOHNSON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    Brokers fast Fourier transform algorithm development

    1970

    CREDIT: THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Faults supersonic transport while serving on President's Science Advisory Committee

    1995

    Co-authors JASON review of Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

    2002

    CREDIT: AP

    National Medal of Science

    2010

    CREDIT: BY INTERNATIONAL BIRD RESCUE RESEARCH CENTER [CC-BY-2.0 (HTTP://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY/2.0)], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    Recruited by DOE to help with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

    • * Ann Finkbeiner is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland.

  4. Education

    An Invisible Hand Behind Plan to Realign U.S. Science Education

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Meet the master bureaucrat behind President Obama's controversial proposal to reshuffle the federal government's $3-billion-a-year investment in STEM education.

    The big picture.

    OMB's Kathy Stack is a good example of how a career civil servant can help shape policy at the White House.

    CREDIT: LINCOLN SCHATZ, THE NETWORK (KATHY STACK), GENERATIVE VIDEO STILL, 2012

    An art exhibit in downtown Washington, D.C. features the pictures and words of 89 Washington movers and shakers. The exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled The Network, includes high-profile politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Eric Cantor, and Karl Rove and renowned scientists turned policymakers such as Nobelists Harold Varmus and Steven Chu. A few, like journalist Cokie Roberts, have earned fame for explaining the ways of Washington to the public. And then there's Kathryn Stack.

    Stack is deputy associate director for education and human resources at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The agency exercises vast sway over government spending and regulatory practices yet prefers to operate in the shadows. So Stack's position qualifies her for the Hall of Fame of faceless government bureaucrats. But she's learned a thing or two about wielding power during a 35-year career spanning six administrations.

    "Several others [in the exhibit] told me that she knows how to get things done," says Chicago artist Lincoln Schatz, explaining why he chose Stack for the exhibit, which opened in December. "They said few people understand the complexities of large bureaucracies like OMB as well as she does."

    Despite her professional mask of anonymity—OMB officials declined to make Stack available for an interview—2013 may be a breakthrough year for Stack. In addition to seeing her picture hang on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, Stack watched President Barack Obama unveil a budget initiative this spring in which she played an important role: a proposal to radically realign the federal government's $3 billion annual investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

    The 226 programs, which serve students, teachers, and the public, are spread across 13 agencies. The reorganization would cut the number in half (see graphic, next page) and severely curtail STEM activities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (see sidebar, p. 340), NASA, and several other so-called mission agencies. At the same time, it would strengthen the efforts of the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Smithsonian Institution by designating them as lead agencies.

    The proposed reshuffling hit the U.S. scientific community like a bombshell. For starters, they hadn't seen it coming and were miffed that they weren't consulted. "We are disturbed with the nontransparent process by which this proposed consolidation was developed," wrote the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in a 2 July letter to John Holdren, the president's science adviser.

    But being shut out isn't the community's chief complaint. Three months after the plan was sent to Congress as part of the president's 2014 budget request, STEM educators are still waiting for the White House to explain how it drew up the list of programs to be ended, merged, or expanded. They also worry that the reshuffling will damage existing activities by shifting resources away from agencies with unique expertise and tools to do STEM education and asking the lead agencies to take on too much (Science, 19 April, p. 258).

    At the core of the proposal is an approach to governing, called evidence-based policy, which Stack has long championed at OMB. It calls for killing, reforming, or expanding government programs based on the results of regular, rigorous evaluations of their effectiveness. To officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations, the complex, disparate array of federal STEM education programs seemed ideally suited for the approach.

    But critics say that Stack and her OMB colleagues, in their eagerness to consolidate, inverted the strategy, making decisions before the evidence was in. The result is a flawed plan, say the spending committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives. "What is proposed as a consolidation of existing STEM programs … is really the elimination of many proven and successful programs with no evaluation on why they were deemed duplicative or ineffective," the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote last week in a report accompanying its 2014 bill for the Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, NASA, NSF, and several other agencies.

    Reshuffling the deck.

    The proposed reorganization would shrink the number of federal STEM education programs from 226 to 110. Three "lead" agencies would get a boost in their budgets, while 11 agencies would lose funding for STEM programs.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM OSTP, OR THE WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY

    Looking for evidence

    Although evidence-based policy may seem like an obvious way to make the federal government work better, it's not common practice. "Most agencies don't think about outcomes," Stack told the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) in a March 2011 speech. "And most of what they consider to be a rigorous evaluation isn't." At the same time, she noted, "most agencies think that everything they are doing is effective."

    In addition to complacency, another major obstacle to implementing evidence-based policy is vested interests, says Robert Gordon, Stack's boss at OMB during the first 4 years of the Obama administration. "People have talked for ages about trying to rationalize and harmonize programs that were overlapping and wasteful," says Gordon, who left OMB in March to become a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "But it's hard to do because these programs have so many supporters."

    Of course, evidence-based policy requires evidence. But the results of previous evaluations of STEM programs were not the driving force in selecting winners and losers, Holdren told the House science committee last month. Instead, he said, the reorganization was intended to "cut back on lower priority or narrow-purpose programs [to] make room for targeted increases in high-priority areas." Better evaluation would be a consequence, not a cause, of the reorganization, he noted. Once the reshuffling was implemented, he told legislators, the administration would be in a better position to carry out "rigorous evaluation and evidence-building strategies."

    That's a reasonable approach, says Robert Shea, who was Stack's boss during most of the George W. Bush administration and is now a director in the Washington offices of Grant Thornton, a global professional services firm. "You'll never consolidate all programs with similar objectives," Shea says. "But you want to get a sufficiently small number so that they can be better coordinated."

    Such arguments haven't appeased opponents of the proposed reorganization. It has drawn near-unanimous opposition from several of the congressional panels with jurisdiction over one or more of the agencies that would be affected. The House science committee, for example, last week approved a bill to reauthorize NASA programs that would prohibit the administration from implementing "any proposed STEM education and outreach-related changes proposed [for NASA] in the president's 2014 budget request." Senate appropriators were equally dismayed, telling NIH officials on 11 July to put the brakes on their plan to dismantle NIH's Office of Science Education and related grants program supporting informal health science education.

    Likewise, House appropriators last week approved a bill that would restore money in 2014 for STEM education activities at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and put the kibosh on a realignment of undergraduate STEM education programs at NSF. The accompanying report also reflected the concerns of many science educators: "The ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community."

    On-the-job training

    White House officials, including OMB and Stack, aren't publicly saying what they think of such rebukes. Indeed, after spending her entire career inside the federal bureaucracy, Stack knows that civil servants aren't even supposed to make policy. Yet, she has played an outsized role by focusing on how to make the wheels of government turn more smoothly.

    "There are policy folks who come in from administration to administration who have great ideas, but they have no idea how government works," she told Schatz, the artist. "I understand the culture and tools, and I know how to translate into action the big visionary ideas that political officials have."

    Those who have worked with Stack testify to her extraordinary grasp of the levers of power. "Kathy taught me, rather than the other way around," says Gordon, a political appointee with extensive experience in Democratic policymaking circles. Jon Baron, whose nonprofit Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy conducted an evaluation of STEM education programs during the Bush administration, says that Stack "has been very successful in persuading her political bosses" that rigorous evaluation should be part of policymaking.

    Colleagues say it helps that Stack doesn't have her own agenda. "She's tied for the least ideological person in government that I know," says Robert Granger, retiring president of the William T. Grant Foundation. Granger had frequent interactions with Stack when he chaired the National Board for Education Sciences within the Department of Education during the Bush administration. "Instead, she's a terrific public servant who's motivated by what she thinks will help the government spend its money well to help kids." Baron struck a similar chord when he told the SREE audience that "we should be glad that she uses her powers for good, and not evil."

    Stack arrived in Washington in 1978 with an undergraduate degree in government from Cornell University to work on education issues within the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1982, she moved to OMB and began promoting the idea of using program evaluation to shape policy in education and income assistance programs.

    The tide of evidence-based policy was coming in as Stack toiled away at OMB, and she rode the wave. One result: In 1993, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act as part of a Clinton-era campaign to "reinvent government." And Stack played a leading role in a similar initiative under George W. Bush known as PART (Program Assessment Rating Tool).

    Then, in 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed the America COMPETES Act, which sought to boost innovation by increasing federal support for research and improving STEM education. One of its provisions called on the government to evaluate existing STEM education programs. Stack asked Baron's center to conduct a review that found only 10 of the 115 existing STEM programs had been rigorously evaluated. Of those, only four were found to have achieved their goals, which included raising student achievement in science and math, improving the skills of STEM teachers, attracting more students into STEM careers, and increasing public understanding of science.

    Correcting "bad habits"

    Stack doesn't claim to be an expert in STEM education. "My education credentials are probably at the bottom," she told her SREE audience. But when the new Obama administration decided to apply evidence-based policy to STEM education, she dove in. "When Obama came in, we moved into overdrive," Stack said. "Within weeks of taking office, they wanted a briefing from OMB on what we could do to improve government. I had learned from my STEM experience that there wasn't a lot of good evaluation out there."

    Although neither a scientist nor an educator, Stack was invited to speak to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in October 2009 as it prepared to launch the first of two studies of ways to improve U.S. science and math education. Stack used the opportunity to explain the rationale behind evidence-based policy.

    "We have gotten into some really bad habits," she told PCAST. "We don't challenge our assumptions that existing programs work. We plan evaluations once the programs have been up and running, when it's hard to create an experimental design with a control group. And evaluation officials are rarely part of the discussion when policymakers examine programs." Although Stack said many agencies may not be able to conduct such high-quality evaluations, she told PCAST that "STEM is one area that may be ripest for taking this approach."

    Stack and her OMB colleagues decided to offer federal agencies the carrot of additional funding if they teamed up to design STEM education programs that could be evaluated more rigorously. "We said you can have money if you send us proposals to support [certain] research questions and to build capacity" for further evaluation. She said NSF and the Education Department, for example, were "challenged … to come up with a plan to improve teacher professional development."

    But money for those and other evaluation experiments dried up after the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January 2011 and the president and Congress struck a deal in August to reduce the federal deficit by cutting spending. "As passionate as I am about rigorous evaluation," Stack told SREE, "it will be a hard sell to set aside large pots of money for evaluation." Instead, she suggested agencies look for "natural experiments … that might show where they can cut without hurting student performance."

    It is not clear whether the plan crafted by Stack and others at OMB was adjusted before being rolled out by the White House. But its hostile reception suggests that, whatever the plan's technical merits, the Obama administration has done a poor job of selling it politically. The result has been widespread criticism from a research community that has generally applauded this White House's science initiatives.

    In a time when every government program is on the chopping block, advocates of STEM education don't expect politicians to exempt their field from scrutiny. But the take-home message from the reorganization controversy, they say, is that politicians should rely on scientists and educators as well as bureaucrats to decide which STEM education programs live and die.

    Kathy Stack wouldn't disagree. But her career demonstrates that a faceless bureaucrat can sometimes also be a very powerful voice in setting policy.

  5. NIH Teaching Units, Cherished in Schools, May Be Shredded

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The science education office at the National Institutes of Health may be forced to dump 180 tons of supplemental lessons on a range of health science issues if it loses its funding under a proposed reorganization of federal STEM education programs.

    Two miles north of its Bethesda, Maryland, campus, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) operates a supply warehouse that serves its intramural scientists. The tidy blue and white building stands out along a grimy commercial strip dotted with auto repair shops. And so do its contents: One corner of the warehouse holds what is arguably the finest collection of health science education materials in the world. But the 180 tons of lessons may soon be pulped by a local recycling company rather than used to feed hungry minds.

    Since 1994, NIH's Office of Science Education has created lessons covering 19 topics incorporating the latest biomedical discoveries. Designed to appeal to middle and high school students, there's a neurobiology unit that focuses on addiction, for example, and an exploration of biological rhythms that discusses sleep disorders.

    Over the years, NIH has distributed more than 450,000 copies of the supplements, free of charge. Although the 2-week units are also available online, the office maintains some 200,000 copies for teachers—probably the vast majority—who might have trouble downloading and copying them at school.

    That supply is now in jeopardy, however, as a result of a government-wide restructuring of science education programs (see main story, p. 338). The White House has proposed shutting down NIH's $4-million-a-year education office next year and ending a $15-million-a-year grants program that supports informal science education activities outside the regular classroom. Without a budget, the office won't be able to pay its share of the rent and utilities for the warehouse, and the material could simply be tossed.

    The moves could happen as soon as 1 October, the first day of the 2014 fiscal year. NIH officials have refused to allow Bruce Fuchs, an immunologist who has directed the office since 1996, to speak with the media. But outside scientists funded by the grants program and others familiar with the office say that its nine full-time employees have been told they will be reassigned and that contract staff members will be let go.

    NIH is keeping its cards close to the vest. "We have not made a final decision about whether the office is closing at the end of fiscal 2013," says Principal Deputy NIH Director Lawrence Tabak. But he acknowledges that NIH is considering all manner of cost-saving options because of the $1.5 billion bite taken out of the agency's overall $30 billion budget by the government-wide cuts known as the sequester. "We have to think about our priorities and see what rises to the top," he says.

    Teachers and health science educators around the country say that closing the office would be a tragedy. For the past decade, Jodie Spitze has taught an NIH unit on bioethics to her biology students at Kent-Meridian High School outside Seattle, Washington. She says that the NIH materials fill a big gap. In addition to providing teachers with the latest research results, the units also prepare them to lead classroom discussions of hot-button issues.

    "IB [International Baccalaureate] biology has a requirement to teach controversial issues like stem cell research, but there's no strategy to do it," says Spitze, who was featured in a 2008 Science article on teaching bioethics in school. Teaching kids how to listen and build a convincing argument based on facts rather than opinions "can be even more important sometimes than the content," she adds. "Otherwise, the kids with the strongest opinions wind up dominating the discussion, which just turns into a debate."

    Principled learning.

    Teachers Amy Lindahl and Brandon Staton discover how to use NIH's exploring bioethics curriculum at a summer workshop.

    CREDIT: JEANNE TING CHOWNING

    Jeanne Chowning, who leads a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that uses the NIH materials in teacher training workshops, says: "I don't know anything else out there that is so up-to-date. And you can count on the quality of the resources because they have been developed by top scientists."

    In North Carolina, Suzanne Wilkison runs an organization similar to Chowning's. In April, when she learned that NIH was planning to shut down its science education office, she immediately placed an order for 3000 copies of eight NIH units. "I panicked," she admits. "I wanted to make sure we had a 5-year supply."

    Joan Thompson, a science consultant for the state's Department of Public Instruction, also placed an order. Next month, North Carolina school officials will pilot an updated course in biomedical technology, now taken by 8000 students each year, which draws upon eight of the NIH modules. Thompson says that the NIH material is a godsend for school administrators, in part because it is aligned with the next wave of education standards that many states are adopting—the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core standards for mathematics and reading.

    Congress seems to agree that the office is worth preserving. This month, a Senate spending panel told NIH that it should "continue funding these programs in fiscal year 2014," adding that "the Committee is not convinced that the quality of these programs would be maintained if they were moved to other federal agencies."

    NIH's Tabak says that "of course we will consider the sentiments of the Senate." But he notes that "we are at a very early stage" of a budget process that could extend well into fall.

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