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Where Is Science Going? Panel Discusses Science Next

FAS President Henry KellyFederal funding support for basic scientific research wasn’t always a focal point of government policy. In fact, President John Quincy Adams’s arguements for “internal improvements” such as the establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures, a survey of U.S. natural resources, and the construction of an astronomical observatory were “greeted with scorn and derision.”

But Science Progress Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Moreno looked back over the history of science policymaking in the United States Friday at a CAP event celebrating the release of Science Next, and noted that we’ve come a long way. “Today there is virtually no debate,” he said, about the fact that the government should invest in science. But the direction of science has felt adrift, he said, and “as progressives, we can’t just be science boosters. We need to worry about where it’s going.”

That’s a question our former colleague Rick Weiss, a co-editor of the book and now the director of communications at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, indicated is central to the Obama administration. Science-based decision making now enjoys a “very high profile,” he said. Speaking specifically of the current discussions on responding to the H1N1 flu outbreak, he said “science,” and concern for public health, “is at the core of every one of those decisions.” He emphasized the commander-in-chief’s own interest in technical details. “The president wants to see the science and he wants to see the evidence,” he said.

Henry Kelly (pictured above), president of the Federation of American Scientists and a contributor to Science Next, addressed the importance of considering where science is going in light of a competitive international economy. “We’re trying to compete in a world where jobs require a high level of skill, but the United States is falling behind,” in science and technology education, he warned. Moreover, he said that the country can’t hope to slow the widening gap in social inequality without workforce improvements. Among Kelly’s suggestions is using research to develop better educational tools—an approach he wrote about in the SP article on educational video games that was the basis for his chapter in the book.

Though President J. Q. Adams might have been ahead of his time in championing federal support for basic research, later proponents could not have predicted the power of successful investments like those that formed the foundation of the Internet. And as radically as the web as changed the way  private enterprise works, Jim Turner, director of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities Energy Initiative and contributor to Science Next, argued that the government has not yet realized that the technology actually has implications for the future of federalism itself.

“Not only does the Internet change the way government works,” he said, “but it changes the relationship between federal and state government,” allowing for information sharing that can improve the quality of public services. Turner explained the idea of “public policy quality management” in the article he authored with Maryann Feldman that found its way into Science Next, drawing lessons for the work of Joseph Juran, who pioneered the manufacturing processes that first transformed the Japanese, and then the U.S. industrial sectors.

You can read Weiss and Moreno’s introduction to Science Next, “Time for Science to Reclaim Its Progressive Roots,” or order the book online.

Full video from the event is available here.

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