Status quo…my predictions as regards science policy

President Obama has been re-elected for another four year term. The Democrats retained control of the Senate. The GOP retained control of the House. On the surface, one might think this would be a prescription for another four years of political paralysis…

One might think. But my sense is that two things have fundamentally changed: first, Obama doesn’t have to run for re-election again. The second is that the Affordable Care Act (more colloquially known as Obamacare ) will become a stable piece of the American social contract–it’s here to stay I think.

This is a President who has been reasonably friendly to science. He appointed scientists to high positions in his first administration, he has supported the two US flagship science agencies (the NSF and NIH), and he speaks to policy issues with the measured tones that scientists tend to be comfortable with.

With the political “room to run” of a second term, and the prospect of Obamacare becoming a legacy, there’s every reason to believe that the President will push hard to support science so that it can be leveraged to make health care more affordable. But to do this, he’ll need a long-term budget deal. Not only does that mean avoiding the fiscal cliff (and the recession it would bring), it also means coming to some agreement with the House GOP on taxes and fiscal policy. I’m beginning to think this may be more likely.

So with that preamble, my predictions:

–NSF and NIH will survive and even thrive.

–“Race to the Top”, as a model, will be expanded beyond education into science R&D arenas.

–Convergent, team-based science and technology investments will expand, even as the old single PI model perhaps contracts–this may start to change the character of American science.

–US National Labs will accelerate a process of reinvention (that I think may have already begun) so that they may better positioned to play a central role

–More US medical schools, but with a diversity of different models.

Overall, I’m optimistic.

Policy as affected by science

Right now, as I write these words, the trajectory of future policy on nuclear energy is being altered by the science of an element called Zirconium. That’s because the spent fuel rods of the Number 2 nuclear reactor at Japan’s Fukushima power plant have lost their water shielding and there is now the possibility that their cladding, Zirconium, will catch fire with catastrophic results.

Science has a way of catching up with policy very suddenly, because being very firmly rooted in reality (we hope!), ground truth can render existing policy moot in an instant. In contrast, policy, rooted in the politics of the moment, often pushes very hard against science, but inevitably loses out when scientific reality pushes back–a Tsunami can moot a policy on sea-wall height.

As a scientist, I’m not in favor of a Technocracy (actually a political movement that existed here in the US in the early 20th century). I’m quite comfortable with the market-based western democracy form of government that has been the norm here in the States. On the other hand, I would like to see policies better informed by science.

How to get there?

The current Obama administration has tried the approach of appointing very high achieving scientists to top-level leadership positions both in the Cabinet (Secretary of Energy Chu is a Nobel laureate) and in the White House. I’m not sure that’s enough.

The problem is that until science rears up and enforces reality upon the polity (these black swan events are often disasters), it’s often quite politically convenient for factions to deny science–arguing that since scientific consensus is constantly evolving (we don’t believe that the Earth is at the center of the Solar System anymore), any group of scientists offering advice to policy makers are just one more special interest group. Just another version of the K-Street lobbyist.

I’ll stay away here from Climate Change, but instead return to nuclear power. The use of nuclear fission as a method to generate electric power is both attractive and fraught with complex dangers for nations–particularly those with limited access to fossil fuels. The science of nuclear fission on the contrary is quite simple.

Problems arise however as a result of the scientific truth: highly enriched nuclear fuel rods will continue to emit heat without cooling and that heat can, under the right circumstances damage and melt-away fuel rod cladding. Returning to Zirconium, its melting point is 1852 degrees Centigrade. Above that point, we have problems.

Hence, the science overtakes the policy when the temperature of the nuclear fuel exceeds the melting point of Zirconium. At that point, the scientist is not another special interest group. Actually the scientist becomes an oracle of sorts, advising the decision-maker on a moment of ground truth.

A caveat: scientists need to act more like scientists and less like K-Street lobbyists if they are to do a better job of informing policy.

Where’s the Change We Can Believe In?

ScienceInsider slams the Obama Administration here for not releasing science policy reviews such as the NASA manned space flight review headed by Norman Augustine.

Money quote:

The so-called Augustine report is the latest in a series of analyses of pressing issues affecting the research community—scientific integrity and biosecurity being the others—that the Obama Administration has chosen to keep under wraps. The pattern of asking experts to study an issue and then not disclosing their recommendations seems at odds with the repeated promises of President Barack Obama to maintain a culture of openness in government.

Tripping Hazards In Neuroethics: An Opinion

No doubt many readers are familiar with debates about the role of neuroscience in seeking to enhance (or augment) cognition, and possible policy implications, recently featured in Nature. Diverse contributions to science policy discussion help highlight important considerations for policy makers, including potential “tripping hazards” along the path to feasible policy, as illustrated in the recent commentary from Greely et al (2008). By “tripping hazards,” we mean papered-over or simply overlooked value fault-lines in policy formation that are likely to erupt in problems of feasibility or public acceptance. The authors’ recommendations about the use of cognitive enhancing drugs in healthy persons include concerns about safety, coercion, and fairness (meanwhile dismissing others as lacking substance). Their discussion of safety relies upon selectively stretching the idea of effectiveness and purpose for medication, while calling for safety standards to be held the same as for medicines treating illnesses. The “evidence-based evaluation” for which they call would thus be stretched over the values they’ve selected for inclusion and exclusion, and would be more likely to set up a “stretched line tripping hazard” for policy making than it would be to resolve controversy. The “thin ice tripping hazard,” on the other hand, emerges from their discussions of coercion and fairness, where the recommendations cannot support the weight of the problem. One sign of thin ice ahead is contradiction among recommendations, partially acknowledged but not here addressed, that we protect freedom by discouraging even indirect coercion to take enhancement drugs such as in schools, and protect fairness by providing them to all test-takers in a competitive examination. We commend the authors for contributing to the ongoing public debate but note that much remains to be done.

Jim Olds and Lee L. Zwanziger

Lee works at the FDA and therefore notes that the findings and conclusions in this letter have not been formally disseminated by the Food and Drug Administration and should not be construed to represent any Agency determination or policy.)

Greely H, Sahakian B, Harris J, Kessler RC, Gazzaniga M, Campbell P, Farah MJ.”Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” Nature. 2008 Dec 11;456(7223):702-5.

Obama’s scientific team

Last week, the President-elect filled out his scientific team. He had already named Nobel Laureate Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. The new picks include Harvard’s John Holdren as Presidential Science Advisor, well known within the climate-change community but also include two outstanding molecular biologists to co-chair the PCAST (President’s Council on Science and Technology). Varmus, also a Nobel Laureate for his seminal work on oncogenes with Michael Bishop, was director of the NIH during my post-doctoral years when I trained in Bethesda; Lander is director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

These choices represent a qualitative shift towards depoliticizing science and science policy for the new Administration. And that’s a good thing. The challenges that we face, are too complex and daunting for ideologues.

More on Obama’s Science Policy: II

I’m at home with a nasty cold today, which gave me a chance to very carefully read the Sunday papers. If you get a chance, check out the review of Irene Pepperberg’s new book on Alex the parrot.

Now back to thinking about the new President’s science policy. Yesterday we visited with the legislative director of one of the big scientific societies here in Washington and both of us agreed that what happens at NIH will be of major importance. The National Institutes of Health have had a long successful history with both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans are in general agreement that NIH basically “works” (in contrast to the rest of the government). Whether or not this meme is true, it’s out there and has played to the agency’s effectiveness over the years. In particular the mix of using approximately 10% of the agency’s budget to support a “high risk, high payoff” intramural campus and 90% to support a rigorously peer-reviewed extramural investigator-initiated grants program has taken on the permanence of received dogma. With the current economic challenges and the resultant chronic decrease in discretionary budget funding, there is a worry that NIH may have lost it’s groove in a more fundamental way. When only 5% of new grants are getting funded, but 30% of them are scientifically worthy of support, deciding who gets the green light begins to be similar to arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
To be fair, NIH is engaged in a deep conversation within and among its external stakeholders about reform, but under the new administration (and particularly with a new NIH director) one might expect this process to become more urgent and potentially more consequential. One major challenge for the agency is how to reward scientific risk-taking more effectively. Currently the existing peer-review system tends to work against the “bleeding edge” which may delay important public health benefits of biomedical research. There’s also the question of how to more effectively promote scientific collaborations between the intramural scientists (on the Bethesda campus) with their colleagues in academia who may be funded by the extramural program. Currently the old “firewall” between the two branches of biomedical research funding is under siege, but the wall hasn’t come tumbling down yet. It probably should.
More fundamentally, the new Administration might consider reducing the number of NIH institutes (I forget how many of them there are, but it’s in the double digits) and figuring out a way to increase coordination among the institutes and between other federal agencies. One way to do this, is to substantially increase the power of the NIH Director at the expense of the individual Institute Directors. The new Pioneer grants undertaken by current NIH Director Zerhouni are a good first step. But more more could be done.
Finally the Bethesda, intramural NIH needs to figure out a way to balance the critical need to maintain transparency in research funding (e.g. dealing with scientific conflict of interest) with equal need to create a pleasant enough employment environment to attract the very best and the brightest. Those individuals don’t need to come to Bethesda to be well supported and to thrive–but we want them to chose to do so. Striking that balance is going to be really important for creating a intramural program that fulfills its mission.
The incoming Obama administration of course realizes, positive changes only comes about when you chose the right leadership team. His choice for NIH director, will give us a very big clue about what will happen, change-wise, with this extraordinary agency.

President-elect Obama and science policy: I

The Obama administration will face some immediate science policy challenges when it assumes power on January 20. To my mind, first among them is the urgent need to return to the notion that Vannevar Bush put forward mid-20th century that federal R&D investment is dual use: it can improve the national and public health and serve as a primer to the US economic engine. Given the current economic crisis, Keynesian-type government spending might be targeted both at infrastructure (think: mass transportation, green energy, bridges–hopefully to somewhere) and science R&D.

The Decade of the Mind project is a perfect example of how such a priming investment could be implemented. New federal investment across multiple agencies would support cross-cutting initiatives that would heal, model, enrich and understand the emergence of “mind” from brain. The public health aspects of the Project might be centered at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs. One might imagine the the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense playing the central role in supporting research to reverse-engineer brains for better robotics, while the National Science Foundation would aim directly at the basic science questions–with implications for understanding the deep links that extend all the way from physics to intelligence. 
While the “Decade” Initiative might lead to cures for diseases of the mind (such as Alzheimer’s), the technology developed along the way (for example autonomous “intelligent” vehicles or brain-machine interface prosthetics) could serve to prime the economic pump–as those inventions are transferred to the private sector. At the same time, the advances in K-20 education made possible under the Decade Project–as neuroscientists begin to collaborate fruitfully with educators–will improve the “national health” in terms of competitiveness in the global economy.
This is not to say that there aren’t other daunting science policy challenges. Energy and Climate Change will certainly be at the fore. But, as I’ve argued before, many elements of these other challenges thread tightly into a Decade of the Mind project.  Certainly understanding the national security elements at the intersection of Energy and Climate Change requires a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that subserve human behavior. These cognitive mechanisms once understood, can lead to more predictive computational models that may give us better insights into how Climate and Energy-use might lead to mass perturbation of human social behaviors.