"Better late than never," was the reaction of one policy researcher to the news, announced today, that 22 members have been named to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The group--more than half from industry and finance--will serve as the nation's top consultants on high-tech issues and scientific research. They will be led by John Marburger, the president's science adviser, and E. Floyd Kvamme, a Bush campaign fundraiser and venture capitalist.
The group met today for the first time, in private, before heading over to the White House for a 45-minute session with President Bush. In a telephone roundtable with reporters immediately afterwards, Kvamme and Marburger announced that PCAST would begin by tackling four areas: developing the infrastructure for information technology, setting priorities for the federal investment in science and its economic benefits, improving energy efficiency, and combating terrorism. A subset of PCAST members and outside experts will address each issue, and Marburger said that he's looking for a "quick response." The entire council plans quarterly public meetings, with the panels convening more frequently.
The makeup of the council suggests to Harvard University science policy analyst David Hart that "the Bush Administration is moving even further than Clinton" toward addressing industrial issues. "My sense is that we don't have many science luminaries here," Hart comments. But he notes with approval that the list abounds with information technology executives, including Robert Herbold, executive vice president of Microsoft Corp., and Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer Corp. "This group could have some real heft," he noted, if its role "is more than symbolic."
The new PCAST has just one working scientist: plant molecular biologist Charles Arntzen of Arizona State University in Tempe, who has pioneered research on "edible vaccines." Marburger says that the dearth of scientific expertise is deliberate. "The goal is to get advice from leadership in higher education and industry* and not necessarily the scientific level," he explains. "We aim to get scientific advice from the National Academies [of Science and Engineering]."
The PCAST members include some very familiar faces. Several, in fact, are former PCAST members or government officials during the first Bush Administration--Erich Bloch and Walter Massey, former directors of the National Science Foundation; Ralph Gomory, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and Bernadine Healy, outgoing head of the American Red Cross. Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a holdover from President Clinton's PCAST.