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Joe Biden jumps into science policy with 5 questions

Between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, science policy matters led President Joe Biden’s to-do list for his first day at the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken more than 400,000 American lives and is killing thousands more daily, is clearly the biggest challenge, judging from Biden’s inaugural address.

“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said today. “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

But climate change also came in for a prominent mention: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself — a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

Public health and environmental issues also led the list of executive actions that Biden approved on his first day. Among the highlights:

Even before he took office, Biden turned up the spotlight on science policy by giving Cabinet-level status to the presidential science adviser, who also serves as the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Biden’s choice for the job is Eric Lander, a mathematician and geneticist at the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute. If confirmed, Lander would be the first biologist to serve as science adviser.

In contrast, the Trump administration’s science adviser position was vacant until 2019, when Oklahoma meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier won Senate confirmation.

Biden’s science team also includes two new co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology: Caltech biochemist Frances Arnold, who won a share of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2018; and MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber, who was principal investigator for NASA’s GRAIL mission to the moon.

Biden took a page from a 75-year-old playbook when he laid out his agenda for science policy. In a letter to Lander, he referred to the four questions that Franklin D. Roosevelt posed to science adviser Vannevar Bush in 1944 — questions that Bush answered in a classic report titled “Science, The Endless Frontier.”

“I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful and prosperous world,” Biden said.

For the record, Roosevelt’s four questions for the postwar era were:

  • What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
  • With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
  • What can the government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
  • Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

Biden’s letter posed five questions for a new turning point in America’s scientific and technological progress:

  • What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible — or what ought to be possible — to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?
  • How can breakthroughs in science and technology create new solutions to address climate change — propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?
  • How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?
  • How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?
  • How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

Biden’s letter calls for drawing up a new roadmap for American research, but how might that map differ from the Trump administration’s guide to the “Industries of the Future“? Will it continue to stress artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, advanced wireless technology and biotech? Or will it highlight new frontiers, such as clean energy?

Either way, stay tuned for the answers to Biden’s five questions.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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