Science advisers mull priorities

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Climate change and energy are high on the agenda for Obama's panel.

John Holdren co-chairs the PCAST council. Credit: K. Wolff

An elite group of 21 US researchers met publicly for the first time last week as the new advisory panel to US President Barack Obama on scientific and technical matters. But despite an enthusiastic inaugural meeting, it will take time to know how effective the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will be.

PCAST has already put together its first report, on the government's H1N1 pandemic strategy. Other topics likely to be high on its agenda include how science can help the economic recovery, and how best to deliver on Obama's ambitious climate and energy research portfolio.

Opening the meeting on 6 August, co-chair John Holdren called the council "a spectacular cast of leaders of our science, technology and innovation communities". Holdren, who is Obama's chief science adviser, chairs PCAST with Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The full group boasts three Nobel laureates and 16 members of the national academies of science, engineering or medicine.

The new PCAST "has a great membership and outstanding co-chairs, but its ability to influence events depends on who listens", cautions John Marburger, who co-chaired the previous incarnation of PCAST as the science adviser to President George W. Bush. PCAST's success or failure depends mainly on its access to the president and on its interactions with various other advisory groups within the administration. These include the Office of Science & Technology Policy, which Holdren directs, and the National Science and Technology Council, composed mainly of the heads of agencies that deal with scientific matters, along with the US vice-president.

Last November, Marburger and the other outgoing PCAST co-chair, venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, left a memo offering their successors some advice, including limiting the number of members: under Bush, the council launched in December 2001 with 24 members and expanded to 35 in 2005. PCAST's previous incarnation focused more on technology advice, and it included fewer academic scientists and more business executives.

"The best thing about this PCAST is that it's up and running earlier in the term than the previous one," says Marburger. At the meeting last week, Holdren said that the council's speedy formation was a clear signal that Obama thinks that science and technology are crucial in addressing global challenges. On 7 August, the council met with the president for a little over an hour.

PCAST's H1N1 report had been commissioned by Obama in late June. Shortly after, the council met for two days with around a dozen experts in public health, virology and other key fields. The report, which has not yet been made public, was delivered two weeks later and addressed the value of scenario planning, communicating complex messages to the public and policy-makers, and the types of legal, social, financial and other factors that could get in the way of responding to a pandemic. "Everyone felt that it was probably the best response ever to an epidemic event," says Lander.

Last week's meeting saw council members suggesting future subjects that could attract their scrutiny. Barbara Schaal, a plant geneticist at Washington University in St Louis, suggested weighing in on the research agenda for the proposed National Institute for Food and Agriculture, an institute authorized within the US Department of Agriculture but not yet funded. Lander, also a geneticist, suggested looking at governmental approaches to cancer research, including evaluating whether the most creative approaches get support in their early days. And geochemist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University suggested tackling national strategies for research into adaptation to cope with the effects of climate change. The next PCAST meeting is slated for late October.

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Witze, A., Buchen, L. Science advisers mull priorities. Nature 460, 785 (2009) doi:10.1038/460785a

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