Washington Update

Key Science and Technology Policy Leaders Speak at National Academies of Science Annual Meeting

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, May 6, 2021

At the recent National Academy of Sciences annual meeting, President Marcia McNutt interviewed several key members of Congress known for their science and technology policymaking. The first interviewee was Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chair of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who spoke passionately about the creativity of people of color and the need to focus on a good immigration policy that brings an international attitude toward research. She wanted to support science, technology, engineering, and math talent; ensure that talent be harnessed and fertilized; and ensure that the U.S. infrastructure for research was up to par and well equipped.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said that her committee would continue to invest in basic research, but the U.S. still needs to build the workforce of tomorrow. This would be done through methods such as increasing investments in fellowships and doctoral opportunities, not just in basic research. She echoed the need for a diversity of ideas that come from a diverse science workforce. Using her experience in small business where she said that she saw fewer women than men who received venture capital, she explained she does not want to see this lack of parity continue in the scientific field.

Next was Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK), Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and a product of land grant universities. He said that his constituents from rural America represent our future too. The top issues he wanted the research community to be aware of were two generational challenges — the international competition the U.S. faces with the Chinese government and climate change. According to him, his “real” job of being a farmer has shown him that global industrial activity has changed the climate. He said the race is on to improve research facilities and attract talent. He also promoted doubling basic research spending in an orderly way as called for in his legislation, the Secure American Leadership in Science and Technology or SALTA Act (H.R. 5685).

The last interviewee was Representative Bill Foster (D-IL), Chair of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and former physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He wanted scientists to know that they must be involved in policymaking. One way is to be in Congress. He asked scientists to spend a portion of their lives in electoral politics (a high payoff activity) because the technical problems in Congress are diverse, and there is a need to have colleagues who understand statistics and calculus and can explain it in an accessible manner. He urged the National Academies to do more quantitative work to help policymakers obtain the most bang for the buck and allow the gains from the scientific enterprise to positively impact all people.

Another session of interest was moderated by Kei Koizumi, Acting Director and Chief of Staff, Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation agency review team lead during the Biden Harris transition. This panel focused on science in the current administration with panelists such as Sethuraman Panchanathan, PhD, Director of the National Science Foundation, who said use of inspired research will unleash more discoveries and will not be a zero sum gain.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was also on the panel. He recounted that 52 percent of NIH’s budget goes to basic science and the remainder is disease — oriented or applied research. He said as NIH has dealt with the worst pandemic in 103 years, there is a need for a game changer to target the weak spot of the virus. This effort will take more than a few months to obtain an answer. In the area of diagnostics, he mentioned the earlier need during the pandemic for point of care diagnostics resulting in RADX being developed. It turned NIH into a venture capital organization rather than using NIH’s other transactional authority to do this. Another topic was the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health, or ARPA-H, which he hopes succeeds. If it is stood up, it will be a $6.5 billion organization in its first year to focus on infectious diseases, cancer, diabetes, etc. Collins continued his talk with an emphasis on the need to support the scientific workforce with both no cost and cost extensions where appropriate, providing $2,500 per year per fellow for childcare, extending eligibility for researchers who need to stay in the early-stage investigator category, and addressing health disparities and structural racism. He encouraged scientists to visit communities to explain what they do and why it matters.

The entire program is now available to view.