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A Timely Cabinet Appointment for Science

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President-Elect Obama has indicated that dealing with the present economic crisis in this country will be his first priority upon taking office. In order to hit the ground running it is expected that he will begin to announce Cabinet appointments "with all due haste". One Presidential appointment that is likely to be overlooked by pundits, but, for the long-term health of our economy, is equally important to include in this set is that of Presidential Science Advisor.

During the election campaign the Association of American Universities and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, representing 180 other organizations, wrote letters to both Obama and McCain urging them, should they become President, to appoint a Science Advisor, with a title reinstated to be Assistant to the President for Science and Technology by January 20th, and to assign the position a cabinet rank, at the same status given to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

It is time for President-Elect Obama and his Transition Team to seek out an individual who can help get the science and technology infrastructure of this country back on track after a half-decade of decreases in federal support of research, and who, at the same time can help coordinate policy decisions that will be vital on issues ranging from National Security to U.S. Economic Competiveness.

In 2007, the National Academies, under the leadership of Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, published a document entitled, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which outlined the urgent need for a renewed Federal commitment to research and education in order to retain our international leadership in science and technology in the coming decades.

The report presented some daunting statistics: About half the nation's growth in GDP per capita during the past half-century can be attributed to scientific and engineering achievements, for example, and public investments in science and technology have produced annualized societal returns that range from 20 to 67 percent. But adjusted for inflation, the United States spent about a fifth less on research in 2000 than it did 15 years before, while U.S. companies spent three times more on litigation than on research.

One of the report's chief recommendations, that the Federal Government double its support for research in the Physical Sciences and Engineering in the next decade was adopted in the America Competes Act, passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2007.

Yet in spite of this bi-partisan support, budget issues and political wrangling produced a continuing resolution that maintained support for science research at a flat level, effectively continuing, after effects of inflation are considered, the five-year slide in federal support for yet another year. This year Congress is on track to continue the slide.

A Science Advisor to the President with clout within the administration could work effectively with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to help ensure that science and technology does not continue to remain a victim of tight budgets. At a time when the nation's economic health will depend more than ever on our ability to innovate in areas including Energy, Health Care, and the Environment, it remains vitally important that we do not further squelch the vitality of the remarkable reservoir of scientific and technological talent in the country.

But more than this, an effective science advisor, supported by a renewed Office of Science and Technology Policy could help reshape government research in ways appropriate to the demands and needs of the 21st century.

For example, in order to effectively administer the proposed $15B/yr that President-Elect Obama has pledged in order to help the nation achieve energy independence, it is not at all clear that the existing infrastructure of the Department of Energy and our National Laboratories is best suited to the task.

A respected scientist with experience in public policy could help guide President Obama and his Administration to ensure not only that we do not waste time in addressing the urgent needs of the nation, but also that we do not squander resources.

Moreover, past Presidential Science Advisors that I have spoken to have made it clear that the earlier in the term that an appointment with direct access to the President is made, the more effective the individual involved can be in impacting policy decisions. The vacuum of power that occurs during the brief transition between administrations is quickly filled by ambitious and effective personalities, and a late appointment, or an individual without adequate access to the President will effectively be shut out of the game.

With two ongoing wars and a world economy that continues on the brink of crisis President-elect Obama will have his hands full the moment he takes office. However, while immediate action will be necessary to address pressing crises, we must not lose the forest for the trees. Immediate concerns should not overshadow the need to ensure adequate and informed guidance to effect policies in areas ranging from energy to health care to national security, all of which have an important basis in science and technology and which will help ensure the long-term economic and political health of the nation. A capable Science Advisor, chosen early on, can play an important role in this regard.

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