Science called key to economic, energy, health care challenges

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Science and technology are key to solving the interconnected challenges of the economy, energy, climate change and health care, President Barack Obama's science advisers said this week.

"This president believes that science and technology are central to the problems facing the nation," biologist Eric Lander said at a two-day inaugural meeting of the blue-ribbon President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The group is made up of 21 top scientists, engineers, university presidents and Nobel Prize-winning researchers who're charged with providing independent advice to the White House about how science and technology can best serve the nation. Amid the storm of political bickering in Washington over energy, climate and health policies, the hope is that their deliberations could provide some sensible, fact-based, nonpartisan guidance.

"There are many challenges ahead, but also huge opportunities (to) create new businesses and new jobs," said council co-Chairman John Holdren, who's also the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Holdren said that the Obama administration would give the highest priority to science and technology related to economic recovery, health care, national security and "the intersection of energy and the environment."

"The hardest part of the problem — the kernel of our predicament — is how to provide the affordable energy that's going to be needed, not just in the United States but throughout the world, without wrecking the climate," Holdren said.

In an appearance before the council, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, formerly a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley, said, "The energy-climate problem has to be solved by more science. It's a wonderful opportunity for innovation."

Holdren said that the administration, for a change, was "led by a president who enthusiastically supports science and technology."

He said that Obama had pledged to double the budgets of key science agencies during his term and to ensure that the nation invested a record 3 percent of its gross domestic product — about $420 billion a year — from public and private sources in scientific and technological programs. The current rate is 2.6 percent, down from 2.8 percent during the height of the Cold War.

"There is no single technological silver bullet out there, no one solution," Holdren said. "We need a portfolio of approaches."

Some examples cited at the council's sessions Thursday and Friday:

- Health care. Members agreed that coordinated electronic health records are crucial to providing better, less costly health care. Only 20 percent of doctors and 10 percent of hospitals now have them, said Lander, the director of the Broad Institute, a biological research organization in Cambridge, Mass.

"Patient records are not in one place," he said. "Computers don't talk to each other. Nationwide, we don't centralize medical information."

"What we have now is pretty dismal," said council member Richard Levin, the president of Yale University. "Even the same departments in some hospitals have incompatible computer systems."

"There's a lot we don't know about which treatments work best," said Elizabeth Nabel, the director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. "Some of the newer psychiatric drugs are no more effective than older, cheaper drugs. Exercise and lifestyle changes are better than medication to prevent diabetes."

- Energy and the environment. "We can't continue with business as usual,'" said Shere Abbott, the associate director for the environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: "We have to do this through energy technology transformation."

- National security. Daniel Schrag, a Harvard geologist and council member, said that climate change was also a big national security issue. For example, the Pentagon is worried about a water shortage that threatens the stability of Pakistan.

"The military takes climate change very seriously," he said.

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