The Future of US Science and Technology Policy

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The United States’ global leadership in science and technology (S&T) is accompanied by a disturbing anomaly: a lack of interest in S&T issues in the country’s policy community. Although controversy has focused on specific issues (notably, embryonic stem cell research and climate change), its context has been less S&T and more about wider policy issues.

The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET) is a nonpartisan think tank established with bipartisan support and participation from the corporate, policy, and civil sectors to raise the profile of S&T policy in the United States. C-Pet was lead sponsor (with The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and the Society for Industrial Microbiology) of a meeting on 26 September 2008 to discuss science, technology, and the presidential election. Some highlights of that meeting are presented here.

The Keynote: Barack Obama’s lead technology surrogate, Michael Nelson (visiting professor at Georgetown), laid out the senator’s vision for the future of S&T policy. Obama is committed to giving S&T “a new seriousness” in federal policy. He has a team of 400 advisers working at many levels on the S&T agenda and intends to appoint a chief technology officer with responsibilities across government to promote best practices and encourage innovation.

Federal Role in S&T Policy: Led by David Goldston (Nature), the first panel included Phillip Bond (Information Technology Association of America), Reece Rushing (Center for American Progress), and Neil Munro (National Journal). Their key question was about the kind of research agenda that should be set.

Goldman said that it is set almost entirely by the research community, with policymakers rarely discussing the issues thoroughly. Bond said competition is more serious than ever as innovation is globalized. Societal and ethical considerations must be factored in earlier, especially when public money is involved. Rushing addressed data-driven policymaking: from tracking global ocean currents to using sensors to monitor bridges to developing “quality-of-life” indexes to compare communities and assess needs. Munro commented that scientists form a professional community that will tend to act in its own collective self-interest. “Many of the debates that come up in Washington on S&T policy are proxies for status and power and money,” he said.

Space Policy: Moderated by Paul Root Wolpe (Emory University), the second panel included NASA’s planetary protection officer Cassie Conley and former chief health and medical officer Arnauld Nicogossian. Nicogossian reviewed the central role of health questions and their associated ethical components in the development of human space flight, especially long-duration flights. Conley explained planetary protection — to protect other planets from us as well as us from them. The obligations set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty are becoming more complex to ensure with the advent of private space travel.

Wolpe listed the key ethical issues involved in long-duration space flight. A risk calculus is needed to plot the likelihood, severity, and cost of measures necessary during potential emergencies in space. “NASA must determine the shared values of our society and apply them to these highly unusual situations,” he said.

Emerging Technologies: Moderated by Una Ryan, former CEO of Avanti Immunotherapeutics, panel three included Jennifer Camacho (an intellectual property lawyer), Dawn A. Bonnell (of the University of Pennsylvania’s Nano/Bio Interface Center), forum cochair Jennie Hunter-Cevera, and Caroline Wagner of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University.

Ryan said the biotech spectrum has its weak link in the middle: Phase 3 trials and building manufacturing plants. She also made a plea against weakening IP protection. Streamlining should not undercut IP, she said. Hunter-Cevera favors a patent protection extension from the current 17 years to 30. She focused her remarks on biologics and the growing role of personalized medicine.

Dawn Bonnell noted that emerging technologies may provide solutions to many problems and also offer keys to areas of economic development. She noted two challenges: Long-term R&D increasingly depends on government funding; and an increasingly skilled workforce is needed even as the United States lacks science and engineering graduates and many international graduate students return to their home countries.

Caroline Wagner said we need appropriate barriers to rapid implementation of innovations because too-rapid implementation can lead to instability. She believes that as we move from knowledge scarcity to abundance, we need a collaborative approach with knowledge seen as a public good to share.

Finally, Jennifer Camacho shared her experiences in addressing IP issues for a start-up company. She discussed her role in helping to ensure that a group of companies working in the new field of synthetic biology are able to offer advice to government on the kind of regulatory framework they consider necessary.

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