Some observations on the Obama science team, and what to watch for

As of this morning’s radio/Youtube address, President-elect Obama is said to have filled the balance of his science team. In scientific terms, it is an exceptionally fine group, and the prominence of the announcement underlines that this will be an administration that makes its policy decisions in the context of the best currently available human knowledge. How refreshing!

Not only that, but “science policy” — a discipline which embraces the study of public investments in science and technology itself — is indirectly but definitely in the domain of Science Advisor-designate John Holdren, who currently directs the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard’s Belfer Center. That means this administration will not only be applying sound science to the “mission agencies” but also it will also be thinking carefully about policy for our science-funding agencies themselves, and about innovation more broadly.

And yet, without being in the least grouchy (as I often am) about all this fine news, there are some things to watch for, from the perspective of technology-based economic development. More after the break.

Holdren is one of the few presidential science advisors who could also be considered a serious policy person, but he is by original training a physicist with environmental interests, continuing the long string of physicist, chemists, geophysicists, and engineers stretching back to the legendary Vannevar Bush, who is generally regarded as the inventor of the modern system of interdependence between university-based scientific inquiry and the federal government as funder. Holdren’s role as co-chair of and senior staff to the President’s Council of Science and Technology Advisors will be counterbalanced by two non-staff co-chairs who are distinguished life scientists, Harold Varmus and Eric Lander.

This seems like a sound division of labor and expertise, but it is important to keep a close eye on the relative impact of these two quite different world views. Varmus formerly led the National Institutes of Health, the agency whose own research and generous “extramural” support of university-based life science keeps the innovation pipeline stocked with discovery, and Lander (disclosure: a college classmate) was a key leader of the Human Genome Project. Both men have experience with the commercialization of federally funded science under the Bayh-Dole Act, at the scale of both the large-company licensee and the venture-capital-backed startup. However, the commercialization model in the physical sciences and engineering — the very fields lined up to receive a doubling of federal support under the thus-far largely unfunded America COMPETES Act — is quite different, and the three co-chairs are not necessarily working from a common experience base.

One will expect more familiarity with the commercial implications of physical sciences and engineering research from Energy Secretary Designate Steven Chu, whose research interests in renewable energy are complemented by his experience directing the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, managed for the DOE by the University of California. In general, DOE laboratories have a higher self-regard for their capabilities at innovation, commercialization and industrial partnership than most industry observers would grant them, but as part of the loosely coordinated University of California technology transfer function, LBL shares a certain capabilities with more aggressive members of the UC family, and certainly LBL is far from the least effective of the DOE labs (don’t get me started; I have too many potential conflicts of interest to comment at this time). In general, for good and understandable political reasons, DOE labs consider themselves national innovation resources and have only rarely mastered the art of also stimulating regionally based business and economic development.

For that matter, universities themselves divide into the elite — which consider themselves global institutions that are only incidentally “in” their communities and often not truly “of” them — and the rest, many of which take great interest in their role at the center of a very specific regional economy. Right now, PCAST includes several university presidents of each type. An important question is whether as PCAST membership turns over, presidents like Martin Jischke (retired from Purdue), Wayne Clough (ex Georgia Tech, now Secretary of the Smithsonian), and Luis Proenza (University of Akron) are replaced by others who share this pragmatic perspective. With Holdren managing the selection process, I am optimistic we will see appointments like that. My nominations would include presidents like Michael Crow at Arizona State University. It is certainly important to continue the momentum of recent efforts like the PCAST report on university/industry partnerships, one of the more thoughtful and least-bombastic of recent, nationally prominent reports on science, innovation and competitiveness.

In fact, one of the flaws in the process launched by Science Debate 2008 is that it ended up segregating “science” from “innovation.” Aspects of the Obama campaign’s innovation policy papers made it into its response to Science Debate, but others were missing. In focusing on the president elect’s science team, it is important not to forget to watch other members of the “innovation” team.

For one thing, I find it quite encouraging that Bill Richardson will be the secretary of commerce. As a former energy secretary, but even more importantly as governor of a state whose economic hopes rested largely on successfully exploiting technology emerging from its two DOE and other federal labs, he knows both the strengths and weaknesses of the federal government’s approach to innovation, research commercialization, and industry partnerships. As commerce secretary, he will be an important ally to Chu at DOE, and also the supervisor of two other mission agencies with important science and innovation components, NOAA (where the designated administrator, Jane Lubchenco, is also a scientist) and NIST (director-designate thus far unknown), whose schizophrenic approach to innovation reflects the unresolved “industrial policy” debates of the 1980s. Also reporting to Richardson will be the Economic Development Administration, still the principal federal funder of regional innovation infrastructure including research parks and business incubators.

We will also want to watch carefully the policies of other secretaries of other departments with strong S&T components (roughly speaking, any federal agency the size of whose overall R&D budget qualifies it for participation in the federal Small Business Innovation Research Program). Each of these agencies has significant resources dedicated to S&T, and most have a poor record at contributing to innovation and competitiveness. For example, at the cabinet level, Agriculture Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack showed a good understanding of the innovation system during his tenure as Iowa governor, but he will be inheriting a sclerotic, fragmented and often ineffective S&T apparatus. Likewise, Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano presided as Arizona governor over a substantial reordering of economic-development priorities that put life sciences at the center, but her soon-to-be department’s science and technology function has one of the most difficult and non-transparent reputations in the federal system.

Don’t forget also to watch the respective approaches to their S&T functions of Transportation Secretary-designate Ray LaHood and EPA Administrator-designate Lisa Jackson (who may be elevated to cabinet status). Also at the subcabinet level, good news has come in designation of venture capitalist Karen Mills as administrator of the Small Business Administration. Not only does SBA serve as overall custodian for the multiagency SBIR program but it also manages the important but recently neglected Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) program.

As yet unknown are the designees for administrator of NASA (a non-cabinet agency with a very large S&T function) and the Defense Department’s Deputy Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, a policy office with oversight responsibility for the science and engineering labs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and several other specialized agencies — each of which is large enough in itself to fund substantial university-based science, and to manage an SBIR program larger than that of most cabinet departments in the program.

Finally, as implied in several of my comments above, the interests of the states in these matters is quite different from that of the federal government. While as Americans we all want the innovation system to yield economic growth, in the end a given job gets created in a given jurisdiction, and each state is the master of the environment it creates for innovation. States — their economic-development agencies, their TBED agencies, their energy-research agencies, their stem-cell funding agencies, and their public universities — are all key actors in an overall innovation system that is “federal” in nature and which assigns different roles to the national and state governments.

Unfortunately, Holdren’s S&T policy program at Harvard is not one of the stronger ones on that specific issue. His elder colleague Lew Branscomb has published on this topic, but is predominantly an expert on national innovation policy. Sadly, many of the leading academics and governors who participated in the Carnegie Commission on Science and Technology’s excellent 1992 report Science, Technology and the States in America’s Third Century are no longer active or no longer with us at all. In truth, the balance is a very hard one to strike. Those who believe in a clear and respectful division of responsibilities in a federal system will be watching closely to see which of the Obama science and innovation team are willing to yield some federal power.

Evidently, the Obama science team faces a huge multifaceted task: (1) re-establishing scientific knowledge as a guide to public policy in non-scientific fields; (2) managing the federal science agencies; (3) managing science in the mission agencies; (4) delivering on the promise of technology-based economic development in both cases preceding; and (5) managing the federal/state partnership.

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