Committee on Science and Technology
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Member Speeches :: April 30, 2009

Chairman Gordon's remarks at the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum

as prepared for delivery

I want to thank Dr. Agre and AAAS for the important role they play in helping to elevate science in our national policy discussions, through forums such as this and through their everyday activities. I have to admit that it became clear to me in high school that my future was not going to be spent in the laboratory when I singed off my eyebrows during a close encounter with a Bunsen burner, although I’m happy to report that I still discovered my unknowns. 

I’d like to begin today by congratulating Dr. Holdren on his new position, and thank him for the good work he has done in planning for aggressive new science and technology policies and budgets. This country has a lot of catching up to do, and I know the task will not be easy. I look forward to learning about the details of the FY10 R&D budget and to working with Dr. Holdren and OSTP to advance many of our shared priorities.
Even before his inauguration, President Obama called me up and said, “I’m a science guy.” And he clearly affirmed that Monday in his speech before the National Academies. We should not underestimate the role that such leadership can play in educating and engaging the public. Nor can we afford to miss this opportunity to build public support for strong action now on issues that have suffered, at best, benign neglect, and in some cases have been outright politicized. I’m talking about climate and clean energy of course, but also water, STEM education, nanotechnology and more. These are also issues that will have a big impact on our national security and our economic competitiveness. 
This is an exciting time for those of us in the scientific community, and I look forward to having a continuing dialogue with all of you. There are so many topics we could address today, but I was given just 15 minutes with you rather than three days. So, in the time I have today, I’ll focus on the importance of using our federal resources more effectively and more efficiently.
The broad, multidisciplinary, multi-sector issues in front of us require resources, leadership, and planning across several – often a dozen or more – of our federal agencies. President Obama said in his inaugural address that it’s not about bigger or smaller government; it’s about smarter government. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is providing funds to help us work smarter, but we won’t always have new monetary resources at hand. That’s why we must make more efficient and effective use of the limited resources we have to tackle these grand challenges.
To make this happen, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Science and Technology Council, which is the interagency coordinating body for the national R&D agenda, serve a critical role. To be clear, I do not fault the hard working public servants at our agencies, many of whom collaborate regularly with counterparts in other agencies. But what was missing over the last eight years was consistent leadership from on high, and as a result, too many opportunities simply slipped away without action.
Let me give you an example of an issue that Dr. Holdren also spoke about in his remarks: STEM Education. Half the world’s workers earn less than $2 a day. The United States cannot – and would not want to –compete with other nations on low wages for workers. Since we cannot compete on wages alone, we must instead have a more highly-skilled and better trained workforce to stay competitive. We must keep feeding the marketplace with new ideas that lead to new U.S. companies and new high-paying jobs. In the United States, a 21st century skilled workforce will be the foundation for this innovation economy.
We all understand that education is largely a local issue, and there are good reasons for that. However, the Federal government can play an important role in STEM education at all levels because of the richness of the Science and Technology resources at our science agencies. But there is much room for improvement. I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that our science agencies have almost no idea what other science agencies are funding in terms of STEM education. In fact, it is often the case that two offices within a single agency don’t talk to each other about their STEM programs. This leads to unnecessary inefficiencies and duplication. We can and simply must do better.
Just yesterday my Committee reported out a bill that would require stronger interagency coordination under a national strategy developed to make the most effective and efficient use of our federal investment in STEM education. As a matter of fact, several of the bills before the Science and Technology Committee this Congress likewise focus on coordination across multiple agencies. The point of these bills is not to require more reports or more meetings, but ultimately to make much more efficient, effective use of taxpayer dollars, and, more fundamentally, to make sure we can actually solve these problems.
I’ll give you just a few examples. Last week, the House passed H.R. 1145, the National Water Research and Development Initiative Act.   More than 20 federal agencies carry out R&D on some aspect of water supply, water quality or water management. An increase in the number of water shortages and emerging conflicts over water supplies suggest that the U.S. still is not prepared to address the nation’s water management issues. In fact, 40 states are expected to face water shortages over the next four years. My bill is intended to coordinate national R&D efforts on water and provide a clear path forward to ensure adequate water supplies for generations to come.
Nanotechnology is another large, multi-agency effort. Our committee played a leading role in re-authorizing the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The part about NNI that I want to highlight is the environmental, health and safety, or EHS, research and development, which falls to at least a half dozen agencies.  If we continue to neglect EHS research because every agency thinks it’s someone else’s responsibility, or because it seems less exciting than researching new applications, then nanotechnology could go down the road of genetically modified foods in terms of public acceptance. Or worse still, we could have a single incident that derails the entire industry. That is why we paid particular attention to well-coordinated EHS research and the leadership role of OSTP in our bill.
Finally, the committee is in the earlier stages of developing comprehensive legislation on hazards and severe weather related R&D.   The needs range from a better understanding of the science and development of computer models for prediction, to engineering and standards for infrastructure that can withstand earthquakes and severe weather, to how to communicate effectively with the public to make sure they get themselves to safety in time without causing panic. Once again, this is the collective responsibility of many different agencies with many different responsibilities. This is an issue that’s very personal to me as it seems every spring for the last few years, tornadoes have caused loss of property and loss of life in my district. Just a few weeks ago, a tornado struck my hometown. When the storm was over, it had caused more than $40 million in damage, destroyed more than 100 homes, damaged another 700 and took two lives. If we can prevent such catastrophic loss in the future, we have a moral obligation to do so.
All of these initiatives require resources and leadership from OSTP, and we are excited about the strong staff Dr. Holdren is assembling to carry out these difficult tasks.  At the Committee, we will continue to advocate for necessary resources for his office. But it also requires leadership and willingness to coordinate, cooperate and share information on the part of all of the Federal agencies that have a role in these initiatives. So when we legislate responsibilities for OSTP, we are in fact legislating responsibilities for agencies across the Federal government. 
Congress could also work harder to break down our own stove pipes. We are working with other committees now on climate legislation to ensure that the science and technology necessary for effective climate and energy policy is in place. One of our priorities is monitoring and verification of greenhouse gas emissions, without which a cap and trade system can’t work.  As a witness before the Committee noted last week, “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.”
The Committee is also continuing work on legislation to make sure we develop the full range of clean energy technologies, and just as important, get them out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. One such initiative, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, received start-up funding in the Recovery package. ARPA-E will be a nimble, non-bureaucratic program at DOE to pursue high-risk, high-reward energy technology development because we need the breakthroughs, not just incremental change. Half the growth of our GDP in the 50 years after World War II was attributed to the development and adoption of new technologies.   New energy technologies will be key to meeting the nation’s growing need for energy we produce at home, mitigating climate change, and creating the jobs of the future.
Science and technology underpin most of the major challenges facing our country. But science and technology getting us to where we want to go will require coordinated efforts across our government, and partnerships among government, the private sector and universities. There is no federal science organization better positioned or better led than OSTP to forge the coordination and collaboration necessary
I look forward to working with all of you to help make our government smarter and our partnerships stronger. I like to say the Science and Technology Committee is the committee of good ideas and consensus. If you have a good idea for us, I hope you will contact the committee and share it with me and my staff. Just know that we’ll be inclined to give your ideas more consideration if you still have two intact eyebrows. Thanks for having me here today and thanks for all you do.

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Bart Gordon, Chairman


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