The 21 members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) crowded into a small conference center across the street from the White House in early August to review the science that will be on the agenda of President Barack Obama's administration for the next several months.
The group covered a wide array of topics, ranging from the federal government's response to the anticipated return of the swine flu virus this fall to changes in agricultural practices that might be required to deal with the effects of climate change.
To set the stage, Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, an environmental policy expert and former professor at Harvard University, took a few minutes to discuss what he said is a significant change in the view of science under the Obama administration.
"I propose attending science events to the president, a space-related event, a science fair, and he always says 'yes,'" Holdren said. "The president lights up like a very bright light bulb" when science is on the agenda, he continued. Holdren, brimming with enthusiasm himself, said that "the president is really excited about this stuff and understands the importance of it."
With an upbeat tone set for the meeting, the scientists turned to a series of briefings on the priorities in U.S. science.
First on the agenda was a summary of a quick two-week study done in late June to assess how prepared the country is for the expected return of the H1N1 virus.
The study will provide "an integrated set of recommendations to aid in our response [to the flu's return]," said Eric Lander, a co-chair of PCAST. He said the report contains "strong suggestions for concrete scenario planning, a review of the current surveillance system [to detect outbreaks], and a look at what barriers to a rapid response might exist."
Harold Varmus, another PCAST co-chair and the former head of the National Institutes of Health, said studies of the H1N1 virus have found that only nine varieties out of hundreds are resistant to the vaccine under development. Varmus said that while there is concern that the H1N1 virus is following a pattern similar to the devastating 1918 Spanish flu virus -- mild in the spring and deadly upon its return in the fall -- so far there is no indication that the H1N1 virus will become more dangerous.
A Window on Obama Approach to H1N1 Flu
Langer said the scenarios used to forecast the flu's spread include the most likely events. The extreme possibilities have been discussed, but not developed in detail. Agencies across the federal government are working together, he said, "and lines of communication have been clarified. We want to engage the entire country." The goal, he said, is for federal, state, and local governments to "think this through and make sure we're all on the same page."
Next on the agenda was plant evolutionary biologist and PCAST member Barbara Schaal, who said her council subcommittee is focusing on agriculture in relation to global warming, obesity, and safety. As the climate changes, she said, researchers need to find a way to sustain agricultural output. To combat obesity, she said, the question that needs to be asked is, "can agriculture produce foods that are helpful?" She also discussed food safety issues such as reducing the amount of E. coli and other bacterial contamination in food.
University of Maryland physicist S. James Gates Jr. said his group is working on improving K-12 science and technology education, an area where the U.S. has been sorely lacking for more than a decade. "But we don't want to replicate activities that have been done before," Gates said. "We're looking for unique opportunities." They are examining innovative schools that have good science programs in the hopes of modeling their success on a broader scale.
Other reports focused on energy and security, using robotics and nanotechnology to improve manufacturing, the impact of rapidly changing technology on the U.S. economy, and the role of science and technology in international security.