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President Biden announced the members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology this week. The roster includes two former cabinet secretaries and has significant representation from the physical and biomedical sciences and areas such as climate and information technology.
From left, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathy Sullivan, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and former National Renewable Energy Lab Director Dan Arvizu are three of the new members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
(Image credit – The White House)
President Biden named 27 members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) on Sept. 22, bringing its total membership to 30. He previously appointed Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold and MIT planetary geophysicist Maria Zuber as council co-chairs on Jan. 15, and Presidential Science Advisor Eric Lander serves ex officio as a third co-chair.
PCAST is reconstituted under every new president and comprises experts from outside the administration who do not require Senate confirmation. In principle, the council is responsible directly to the president and it works in parallel with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science and Technology Council, an interagency coordinating body.
Typically, PCAST has operated by forming subcommittees to report on pressing policy issues and undertake statutorily mandated reviews of certain federal initiatives. The first PCAST was assembled by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, though similar bodies served earlier administrations, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1957.
Biden’s PCAST has significant representation from the physical and biomedical sciences and in areas such as climate, energy, and information technology. Many members are leaders in the scientific community and industry, and several have held high-ranking positions in previous Democratic administrations or national laboratories.
Ash Carter was secretary of defense from 2015 to 2017, overseeing the beginnings of a major push to accelerate the development and deployment of new defense technologies. Earlier in the Obama administration, he served as deputy defense secretary and as the Defense Department’s head of acquisition, technology, and logistics. He holds a doctorate in physics from Oxford University and began his career in defense policy as a staff member in Congress’ now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment. He is currently director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
Kathy Sullivan is a former space shuttle astronaut and was the first American woman to walk in space. Holding a doctorate in geology from Dalhousie University, she is also an oceanographer and served from 1993 to 1996 as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She returned to NOAA in 2011 and was the agency’s head from 2013 to 2017. She also served as a member of the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, from 2004 to 2010.
Bill Press has served in several high-level federal advisory groups, including as a member and chair of the JASON defense advisory group. From 1998 to 2004, he was deputy director for science and technology at Los Alamos National Lab and was vice chair of PCAST from 2010 to 2017. He received a doctorate in physics from Caltech and is currently a professor of computer science and integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Press’ father was geophysicist Frank Press, who served as science advisor to President Jimmy Carter.
Dan Arvizu is currently chancellor of the New Mexico State University System. He directed the National Renewable Energy Lab from 2005 to 2015 and was the first Hispanic person to lead any of the Department of Energy’s national labs. He earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and spent much of his career at Sandia National Labs. He served on the National Science Board from 2004 to 2016, including four years as its chair.
Laura Greene has been chief scientist at the NSF-funded National High Magnetic Field Lab since 2015. She earned a doctorate in physics from Cornell University and was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 23 years, specializing in experimental investigations of quantum materials. She has worked to promote science diplomacy and elevate women in the sciences, and was the president of the American Physical Society for 2017.
Saul Perlmutter is an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He is also co-founder of the international Supernova Cosmology Project, which produced evidence of the accelerating expansion of the universe, garnering him a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. He currently leads a team planning how NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will further explore that phenomenon. In addition, he is director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and the namesake of Berkeley Lab’s latest supercomputer.
Cathie Woteki was the Agriculture Department’s chief scientist and under secretary for research, education, and economics from 2010 to 2016. During the Clinton administration, she served as a high-ranking OSTP official from 1994 to 1996 and as under secretary of agriculture for food safety from 1997 to 2001. She holds a doctorate in human nutrition from Virginia Tech.
PCAST also includes billionaire businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who is not a scientist or engineer, but served as secretary of commerce from 2013 to 2017. The Commerce Department is playing a central role in the Biden administration’s efforts to promote innovation-based economic development and shore up supply chains for semiconductors and other critical technologies.
Two semiconductor industry executives are also on the council: NVIDIA Chief Scientist Bill Dally and Advanced Micro Devices CEO Lisa Su. Other representatives from the information technology industry are Microsoft Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz and Google Cloud Chief Information Security Officer Phil Venables.
The biomedical sector is represented by Sue Desmond Hellmann, a physician-scientist who formerly led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Lisa Cooper, a physician and director of the Center for Health Equity at Johns Hopkins University; immunologist Vicki Sato, former head of research at Biogen and former president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; and Joe Kiani, an optical engineering expert and CEO of medical technology company Masimo.
Other engineers on the council are: Paula Hammond, head of the MIT chemical engineering department; John Banovetz, chief technology officer of the chemical engineering company 3M; John Dabiri, a fluid dynamics expert at Caltech specializing in wind turbines; Marvin Adams, a professor at Texas A&M University and an expert in nuclear security; and Andrea Goldsmith, an expert in wireless communications and dean of the engineering school at Princeton University.
Members with backgrounds in environmental science and policy are Inez Fung, a carbon cycle scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and former National Science Board member; Steve Pacala, an ecology professor at Princeton University who specializes in modeling of greenhouse gases; and Frances Colón, a neuroscientist and climate policy expert who served as deputy science adviser to the secretary of state during the Obama administration.
The remaining members are UCLA mathematics professor Terence Tao and two social scientists: Jennifer Richeson, director of the Social Perception and Communication Lab at Yale University, and Jonathan Levin, an economist and dean of the business school at Stanford University.
The staff director for PCAST is Anne-Marie Mazza, who has for the last two decades worked in the policy research arm of the National Academies.
In a video announcing his appointments, Biden observed that his council is the “most diverse PCAST in history,” saying, “For the first time, immigrants and people of color, including Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, make up more than one third of its members.” He also noted it is the first time that half the council’s members are women and that the co-chairs are women.
In another video featuring the three PCAST co-chairs, Maria Zuber pointed to the five questions that Biden posed to Lander after selecting him as science adviser as setting an agenda for the council.
“The president has given us clear guidance of what his priorities are. He wants us to look at what we’ve learned from the pandemic and how that can help us with other global challenges. He’s asked us to think about the challenges associated with climate change. He’s asked us how all Americans can benefit from discoveries in science and technology,” she remarked.
Biden issued an executive order last week expanding the maximum number of PCAST members from 26 to 32, which leaves room for two potential additions. Under PCAST’s charter, one could be a U.S. chief technology officer, a high-ranking OSTP official, but Biden has not as yet named anyone to that job.
Already, Biden’s PCAST is significantly larger than either of the ones named by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Trump set up his PCAST late in his presidency and it produced just two reports, on ways to spur “Industries of the Future,” and a statutorily mandated review of federal computing programs. Co-chaired by Lander, Obama’s PCAST issued its first report in August 2009, on how to augment responses to influenza outbreaks in light of the H1N1 pandemic. It went on to produce more than 30 reports and reviews over Obama’s eight-year presidency.
The White House has not announced when PCAST will hold its first public meeting but has indicated the events will be fully virtual until further notice.
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