It's not often that White House science advisers suggest how the next Administration might want to do things differently. But that's what the outgoing President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has done in a candid self-assessment .
Released last month, the report acknowledges what was perhaps an open secret: that PCAST, a presidentially appointed advisory group, concentrated on the second half of its name. That bias was tailored to the Bush Administration's interest in using technology to stimulate economic development, says venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, its co-chair, adding that the decision was a no-brainer. "If you look at the big issues of the last two decades, especially the concern over energy," Kvamme tells ScienceInsider, "the role of information technology in our lives, and the promise of nanotechnology, I think you'd have to agree that the solutions will come not from science itself but from its application. And that's what technology is."
Although Kvamme asserts that the council's various reports were influential, he sees considerable room for improvement by Harold Varmus and Eric Lander, whom President-elect Barack Obama named to be co-chairs of PCAST along with the next science adviser, John Holdren. Suggested changes range from the size and composition of the council to its interactions with the White House, other federal agencies, and Congress.
One problem is that PCAST grew too big for its own good, expanding from 22 to 35 members over the Bush presidency. "The current size of PCAST is no longer optimal," the report notes, suggesting that it could be more productive with 20 to 25 members. As the council grew, it also accumulated too much dead weight. "About a quarter of our members, over time, became inactive," the report acknowledges. Some of the worse offenders, Kvamme notes, had lobbied the hardest to join the council. "Maybe they didn't realize how much work they would be asked to do," he says.
Kvamme says PCAST also could have done more after it issued a report. "Maybe it's not our role, but I think that we should have worked harder to make sure that the Hill understood why we felt so strongly" about certain issues, says Kvamme. He also faults himself for a steady decline over the years in the number of meetings between PCAST and senior White House and agency officials on timely issues. "In the early days, we were briefed regularly on what to look for," he says. "But once we understood how the process worked, we stopped having those meetings. Maybe we should have continued them."
Having a few more working scientists as members might also have helped PCAST do a better job, Kvamme says. "Charlie [Arntzen, a much-decorated plant geneticist at Arizona State University] was very helpful on many issues. But maybe we should have had a few more like him." At the same time, Kvamme says that members never discussed whether PCAST should include the rising generation of scientists—Arntzen is 65—and that younger scientists were tabbed for expert panels convened to help write specific reports.
Finally, Kvamme says he's "surprised" that Obama has named two outside co-chairs, both of whom have spent their careers in the life sciences. "There are so many other important issues, like education, energy, information technology," he says. "And it never crossed my mind to have two co-chairs."