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Issues in Science and Technology


Imagine It Project

If you want young people to think of science and engineering as creative, exciting, meaningful, even hip activities, show them this film. Actually "Imagine It" is more like an animated Lego set than it is a film. It's composed of a rich variety of segments than can be assembled in a variety of ways for different audiences.

Filmmakers/ringmasters Richard Tavener and Rudy Poe stopped by the National Academy of Sciences today to preview one version of the film that was cut to appeal to leaders in business education, and government. It includes commentary from NAE president Chuck Vest, astronaut Sally Ride, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, the founders of the Blue Men performance group, and a host of other inspiring leaders as well as a charming and impressive group of young people. It also includes some rousing material on Kamen's FIRST competition for high school robot builders.

You can find excerpts from the film and whole lot more at:



Advice from Leonard Cohen

Singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, 1960s survivor Leonard Cohen gave a concert in the DC area this week, and although he didn't actually address S&T in any way, he did recite and then sing a few lines that do have meaning for S&T policy grunts. A tragic flaw of technocrats is the misguided belief that it is possible to craft perfect policies that will somehow impose a rational shape on a messy reality. It's the assumption that the clearheaded, rational, evidence-based approach of the sciences and engineering is the best, perhaps the only valid, world view. Much of the commitment to "communication" with the general public is in practice an attempt to teach everyone else to see the world in a certain way. Although there is no doubt that this a valuable and useful way to see reality, it is not the only valid perspective. Visual artists, poets, novelists, dramatists, musicians, not to mention philosophers, historians, and social scientists, provide insights that add to our understanding of what is human, what is desirable, what is possible.

As Leonard Cohen put it simply and eloquently:

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


The Two Cultures at New York Academy of Sciences

It's been 50 years since British novelist, government official, and scientist C.P. Snow gave his famous Rede lecture on "The Two Cultures." To mark the occasion the New York Academy of Sciences held a conference to consider the place of science in today's society. E.O. Wilson revisited his book "Consilience," a panel of historians explored the long history of discussions about science's place and demonstrated that it's a much richer and more complex subject than one would gather from Snow's essay, a panel of journalists discussed science in the media, and several of the organizers of Science Debate 2008 looked at science in the political process. I was on a panel about education. NYAS will be posting a video of the conference in a few weeks, and it's well worth a visit.

There is no doubt that the science community is far more engaged in reaching the public and policymakers than it was 50 years ago, and many members of the general public are eager to know more about science. The danger for scientists is to believe that communication means teaching the public more about science. It must also include listening to the insights of other intellectual disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, respecting journalists' efforts to translate science for a broad audience, appreciating the insights of artists, and engaging in real conversations. Science has much to contribute, but it is not the only way to view the world, and it does not have all the answers to the world's questions and needs.


Entreneurship in education

On May 5, two unlikely partners--the progressive Center for American Progress and the somewhat short of progressive American Enterprise Institute--jointly sponsored a conference on a topic on which they could find common ground: entreneurship in education. Both organizations see the creative energy of educators who want to start charter schools as an essential spur to improving U.S. public education.

The featured speaker was Teach for America veteran and DC school superintendent Michelle Rhee, who demonstrated that becoming part of the education establishment has not softened her criticism of the status quo or reined in her desire for fundamental reform. In her mind the key virtue of the entrepreneurial charter schools is accountability; without it, no one has sufficient motivation to make education work. She makes no distinction between nonprofit and for-profit operators. Both can create excellent schools.

A video of the event and more information on the first-rate lineup of speakers can be found at


Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, which helps schools make effective use of new technology, deserves special attention. Like the other speakers, he sees innovative charter schools as an essential component of school improvement, but he also reminded the audience that a handful of excellent schools or inspired teachers will not be enough. He correctly pointed out that our problems begin with a dysfunction educational management system. The ability of a few schools to succeed by freeing themselves from the mainstream public schools should lead us to study how to restructure the delivery of education in a way that increases accountability, encourages creativity, and rewards success. It was not computers alone that boosted US economic productivity in the 1990s, it was the use of computers to help create new management and production systems. The same type of systemic change will be necessary to achieve a broad-based improvement in school performance.

Brookings report on community colleges

On May 8 Brookings released the paper "Transforming America's Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity," a plea for increased attention and support for community colleges. The Rodney Dangerfield of higher education, community colleges clearly deserve more respect. They educate about 45% of all college students and are growing faster than 4-year colleges. They are of particular importance to the poor, minorities, adults trying to change careers or upgrade their skills. Although there is still reason to debate whether it is wise to assign so many different missions to community colleges, there is no doubt that some of these missions are of vital importance but desperately underfunded.

See the report at:


AAAS S&T Policy Forum

AAAS held its annual S&T policy powwow in DC May 7-8. Presidential science advisor John Holdren and energy secretary Steven Chu cheered the audience with their discussion of the administration's plans. Turnout was a record high of more than 600 people, and it was a happy crowd.

The most interesting session at the meeting was a panel discussion of how to regulate emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology. To grossly oversimplify a rich, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking discussion, the consensus was that we need to develop an iterative, evolutionary, adaptive, learning (choose your favorite) regulatory system that is designed to change as we learn more about the possible dangers of new technologies. We need to way to explore the potentially abundant benefits of these technologies as we closely watch for downsides. The panelists were looking the the middle course between a precautionary path that says don't commercialize until we are sure something is safe and the reactionary path that says don't regulate until there is clear evidence that damage has been done.

The critical need is careful monitoring of new technologies as they are gradually introduced and to somehow establish political legitimacy for a regulatory system that will be constantly updating the rules. Panelists with good ideas include Dan Sarewitz of Arizona State, Dave Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson Center, and John Kamensky of IBM's Center for the Business of Government.



Regulating Nanotechnology: A Long-Term View

J. Clarence (Terry) Davies, one of the nation's most thoughtful, well-informed, and experienced experts on environmental regulation, has completed a provocative report: Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology


Davies, who has published three earlier reports on nanotechnology regulation through the Woodrow Wilson Center's excellent Project on Emerging Technologies, outlines a plan for a new Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection. Although half-baked plans for new federal agencies are far too common, this proposal is something quite different. Davies played a role in the creation of EPA, served as its assistant administrator for Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, and has held several other key government and think tank positions. This proposal deserves serious attention. Davies acknowledges that he does not expect to see anything like this happening for many years, but the time to start thinking about it is now.


Obama loves science at NAS

On Monday, 4/27, Barack Obama became the first sitting president since John Kennedy to speak at the NAS building. Obama used the occasion of the NAS annual meeting to tell NAS members how much he loves science and technology. It's hard to imagine a speech that would be more pleasing to the science community. See for yourself:


He pledged that the nation would spend 3% of its GDP on R&D--"the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history." He promised big pushes on clean energy and the fight against cancer and made a special commitment to science and math education and to support for young scientists.

During this half hour, science could do no wrong. It was all wisdom, with no narrowness of vision. It was all about service to the nation, with no self interest. It was the magic of innovation in the lab, with no worry about the social, cultural, legal, and economic systems that must all do their part if lab discoveries are to become practical realities. For this half hour everything seemed possible. If only it were so easy.


Education and social mobility

Education and social mobility

A cherished assumption of S&T policy wonks is that R&D will enhance worker productivity and that a high-quality education will enable young people to do productive work and raise their economic standing. Indeed, the potential of a young person from an impoverished family to scale the economic ladder through study and hard work is a fundamental credo of the U.S. political system.

Numerous examples of this type of economic progress are celebrated in the country’s folklore, but the picture that emerges from the data on social mobility is not so heartening. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and The Brookings Institution are making an effort to shed light on the realities of social mobility by publishing the journal The Future of Children. The Fall 2006 issue is devoted to an outstanding collection of articles on “Opportunity in America.” All the articles are available at:


Several of the authors and a group of journalists discussed the issues raised in the journal at the Brookings Institution last week. Although the findings of the articles cannot be summarized in simple terms, a few points of consensus emerged:

- Although social mobility is possible, it is not easy.

- Pre-K is already too late to begin helping children; we need to be working with 2- and 3-year old.

- High-quality early childhood education is necessary but not sufficient.

- Community colleges in particular deserve more attention because that is where children from low-income families will be found.