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January 3rd, 2009

Outgoing PCAST report raises many questions

Published on January 3rd, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

E. Floyd Kvamme

One has to critically read (if not read between the lines) a report written to the incoming President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from leaders of the outgoing panel.

AAAS has started to tweeze out some of the nuances of the report and one of their staffers interviewed soon-to-be-former co-chair E. Floyd Kvamme. For example, he reveals that PCAST:

  • was allowed to grow too big (from 22 members to 35),
  • tolerated non-show members,
  • consciously had a big bias toward technology over science,
  • had few, and eventually stopped having briefing meetings between PCAST and White House officials, and
  • could have worked harder with Congress.

Perhaps AAAS is right that Kvamme and the PCAST report provide candid self-assessment, but that feels a little generous. Many of the points that Kvamme discusses seem less revelatory and more like stating the obvious. Given the downplaying of science and the ground the U.S. has even lost in technology in recent years, true candor would have been for at least one of the PCAST members to have resigned during their term (assuming they cared enough to participate in or even show up for the panel’s activities – more on this below).

In fact, a review of the PCAST’s reports, (see, for example, 2006 reports on “The Energy Imperative”) indicate that the group settled on ducking strategic decision recommendations and instead opted for a laundry-list “conventional-wisdom” approaches, some of which fail to rise above ideology. For example, of the 10 recommendations contained in the “Transportation” subsection of the executive summary of “The Energy Imperative,” eight were about ethanol or biomass approaches, and two were about providing more flexibility with (i.e., make it easier to waive) CAFE mileage standards.

But the report, itself, is worth spending a few minutes to review (only nine pages, including cover letter) if for no other reason than to be reminded of who served on it on behalf of the outgoing administration:

John H. Marburger, III., Co-Chair Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
E. Floyd Kvamme, Co-ChairĀ  Partner Emeritus, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
Charles J. Arntzen, Regent’s Professor and Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Chair, Arizona State University
Norman R. Augustine, Former Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation
Carol Bartz, Executive Chairman of the Board, Autodesk, Inc.
M. Kathleen Behrens, General Partner, RS& Co. Venture Partners IV, L.P.
Erich Bloch, Director, The Washington Advisory Group
Stephen Burke, President, Comcast Cable Communications
G. Wayne Clough, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Michael S. Dell, Chairman of the Board, Dell, Inc.
Raul Fernandez, CEO, ObjectVideo
Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor, University of California, San Diego
Martha Gilliland, Senior Fellow, Council for Aid Education
Ralph Gomory, former President, Sloan Foundation
Bernadine Healy, Health Editor and Columnist, U.S. News and World Report
Robert J. Herbold, former Executive Vice President, Microsoft Corporation
Bobbie Kilberg, President, Northern Virginia Technology Council
Walter Massey, President Emeritus, Morehouse College
Gordon E. Moore, Chairman Emeritus, Intel Corporation
E. Kenneth Nwabueze, CEO, SageMetrics
Steven G. Papermaster, President, Powershift Ventures
Luis M. Proenza, President, University of Akron
George Scalise, President, Semiconductor Industry Association
Charles M. Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering
F. Duane Ackerman, former Chairman and CEO, BellSouth Corporation
Paul M. Anderson, Chairman of the Board, Spectra Energy Corporation
Robert A. Brown, President, Boston University
Nance K. Dicciani, former President and CEO, Honeywell Specialty Materials
Richard Herman, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Martin C. Jischke, President Emeritus, Purdue University
Fred Kavli, Founder and Chairman, Kavli Foundation
Daniel A. Reed, Director of Scalable and Multicore Computing Strategy, Microsoft Corporation
Hector de Jesus Ruiz, Chairman and CEO, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.
Stratton D. Sclavos, former Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO, VeriSign
John Brooks Slaughter, President and CEO, The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering
Joseph M. Tucci, Chairman, President, and CEO, EMC Corporation
Robert E. Witt, President, University of Alabama
Tadataka Yamada President, Global Health Programs, Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation

To be clear, the point isn’t to now suggest that these are mal-intentioned or talentless individuals. Indeed, all have accomplished many great things related to science, technology and/or business, and many will deservedly take their place in the history books.

But, many should have taken the job more seriously, andĀ  turned down their appointments. Even Kvamme admits in the AAAS story that there was a serious problem on the panel (emphasis added):

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.

But serving on PCAST is different than lending your name to a foundation or agreeing to serve on some ad hoc panel, where one’s name or presence, alone, more or less accomplishes the group’s goals.

As early as 2006, it should have been clear that the nation was going to be facing an uphill struggle to deal with energy, transportation, health care and security. PCAST, more than ever, needs doers and evangelists, not those that quickly hand the job off to a subordinate or speechwriters. PCAST positions need to be serious appointments, not plums, and they need to be made to people who are passionate about making PCAST effective.

On this point, the most telling paragraph in the PCAST report is this section on how the new PCAST should be formed:

Composition
The diversity in fields and representation from academia, the private sector and other organizations was felt to be well balanced in our PCAST, recognizing that it was established with the intent to focus more on technology development and impacts on economic competitiveness. There was a general sense that one or two additional active researchers or scientists would be beneficial as members of PCAST, leaving the final number ranging from 2-3 (while not increasing the total number of PCAST members).

This is nonsense. The majority of PCAST members should be luminaries, but they should also be active and “close to the ground” in their field. Being both active and being someone who brings some sense of gravitas to the table are not mutually exclusive. So, having academic representatives is important; having the academic reps be chancellors or university presidents – not so much.

And, what about Kvamme’s suggestion of increasing the number of active researchers or scientists to “final number ranging from 2-3”? Surely he meant 12-13 and an even better suggestion would be to make at least one-half the panel active in science or engineering.

– Peter Wray


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2 Responses to Outgoing PCAST report raises many questions

  1. Marina Pascucci says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this summary and Peter Wray’s insightful comments. I hope that members who continue to lament the necessary changes made to the hard-copy Bulletin will take advantage of on-line information (and the associated links) in articles like this one. Bravo!

  2. J. Grant Stradley says:

    As a retired senior (former ceramic engineer) of our great country I was disappointed as I read the list of names and their occupations/positions of this council. It appeared to have few active scientists, while I’m sure Michael Dell, Norm Augustine, etc. are smart individuals and have good insight into the future they need to be balanced with individuals possessing outstanding scientific minds. The council should be smaller and each appointee should be willing/able to be an active participant. With the current horrible financial state of our country this council is a very important and should be comprised of the best minds available.

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