Image: Alex Taliesen
The United States government should establish a cabinet-level Department of Science (DoSc) to unify our vision and manage and coordinate the $153B spent each year by the government on S&T and R&D.1 A DoSc could ensure that priority efforts receive sufficient attention and sufficient resources, and that issues are resolved with appropriate knowledge and understanding of the requisite science.
We are on the precipice of extending human existence both in time and breadth of capability. We are creating new consciousness and rediscovering that other beings are capable of more thought than our old worldview allowed. We are at the beginning of an age where we will explore and understand not only neighboring planets, but also our solar system and beyond. The future is enticing and it is inevitable that some country will do what it takes to lead the world forward. Many of the most exciting potential advances are simply too risky and require too many resources to fully implement without some sort of government-led effort. A DoSc can create a unified vision of S&T that will help ensure the US remains true to its roots and continues to lead the world into the 21st century – the century of S&T. What are we doing to create the world of tomorrow and who is currently positioned to lead the charge?
THE CASE FOR A DEPARTMENT OF SCIENCE
Executive departments are justified in the Constitution in Article 2 Section 2, where it states “(the President) may require the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.” The executive departments act as the tool by which the President is able to carry out his or her duties to the American people and Congress. The President uses the executive departments to provide services that benefit all of society, and cannot be relied upon to be provided by the private sector. These departments provide for a common societal need, as the table below illustrates.
|SOCIAL NEED||EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT|
|Defense||Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security|
|Diplomacy||Department of State|
|Education||Department of Education|
|Health||Department of Health and Human Services|
|Infrastructure||Department of Transportation and the
Department of Housing and Urban Development
|Natural Resource Management||Department of the Interior|
|Economy||Department of Commerce, Department of Labor,
and the Department of the Treasury
|Food||Department of Agriculture|
|Energy||Department of Energy|
|Justice||Department of Justice|
Over the last half-century, S&T has become the primary change agent for how our society and economy function and evolve. S&T has become critical to who we are as a people. However, our process for managing and investing in S&T remains ad hoc, with different agencies each investing into areas of S&T that align with their mission and current needs without consideration for the overall advancement of S&T in our society. More can be accomplished with greater effectiveness and efficiency if S&T is viewed as an end goal, rather than merely a support function for agency agendas.
Currently, initiatives address specific problems one at a time. For example, the BRAIN Initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative co-exist with little coordination. One is focused on the brain and the other on genomics of the body. Both initiatives are focused on creating a better understanding of human health writ large. However, if our goal is to bridge our understanding of the mind and body, the lack of coordination in these initiatives will ensure there are gaps to be filled down the road. In addition to the choice of research organization, funding and implementation of these initiatives could also use an overhaul. The BRAIN Initiative is approximately 90% sponsored by NIH,2 yet agencies like the DoE could help make the initiative more successful. Each participating organization intends to use the research it funds toward a specific mission. This lack of synergies highlights the need for a unified vision in managing and investing in S&T because without one, the end result is what we currently have – a chaotic system under which it is virtually impossible to describe the vision or direction of our national investment into S&T.
Similar to our need for a DoE and DoD to manage our energy and defense needs, a DoSc would manage our S&T and R&D needs independent of whether the application is to energy, defense, or both. On the near horizon are multiple areas of S&T that promise to forever change the world. Without a coordinated, focused government investment, the United States will struggle to remain a relevant leader going forward.
In the following, we look at three of these opportunities on the horizon, and discuss how a DoSc would change our prospects.
CONTROLLING OUR GENOME
Biotechnologies have evolved to the point where we can precisely manipulate the genome in remarkably predictable ways. Sequencing technology has advanced since the 1970s such that we can decode the human genome in a matter of hours.
The enzyme system CRISPR-Cas9 is giving us extraordinary control over how the body operates. We can use technologies like these to construct entire genomes from scratch,3 or to edit existing genomes, including those of embryos. These technologies have led to the development of things like gene drives, which can pass a particular gene on to progeny, leading to potentially unique solutions to eradicate pathogenic diseases like the Zika virus.4 Furthermore, technologies that allow us to make chemical modifications to the genome or alter the RNA and protein inside cells is making it so we can change the phenotype (i.e. behavior) in living cells and in mammals like primates.5 Researchers are beginning to experiment with these capabilities to modify human embryos in efforts to ensure that children are born without mitochondrial diseases.6
These capabilities are enabled by advancements in genetic sequencing, proteomics and transcriptomics. They are driven by a desire to develop effective cures to genetic diseases like cancer Alzheimer’s, and even blindness.7 However, these biotechnologies also promise a future where people will be able to make non-medical changes to themselves and their offspring, ushering in a future of genetic enhancement. These technologies can alter the direction of evolution imposing a large impact on our society and species. This all leads us into a future where those with the will to push moral and ethical boundaries can alter the direction of humanity.
CONTROLLING OUR BRAINS
Neuroscience provides an unprecedented understanding of the mind. Decades of research in manipulating individual neurons and recording whole brain function have advanced our understanding to the point where we can now interpret memories, transmit thoughts, play games and control prosthetics directly with our minds.8 Concepts that have been pure science fiction, like direct thought communication, downloading knowledge and memories, or even mind control, are beginning to seem realistically achievable. Improved precision, better materials, and lower costs of some neurotechnologies enable increased incorporation of these technologies into everyday products.
While these areas have direct implications for human health and disease prevention, the implications and applications are far broader. The technologies carry issues of ethics, access, future management, and unintended consequences. In order to be a leader in controlling our genome and brains, we must take control of our S&T vision through a DoSc.
CONTROLLING OUR ENVIRONMENT
Technologies are being developed not just for manipulating local, man-made environments, (such as the temperature in our homes and businesses) but also for changing the ecosystem on a global scale. We are beginning to understand how to take control and mold our global environment through geo-engineering techniques dictated by elaborate computer models. Concepts have been proposed to confront the growing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere by filtering it out at a pace unmatched by typical plant life.9 According to some, widespread use of carbon capture and sustainable energy technologies could change global levels of carbon dioxide in a matter of years, not centuries.10 Resource excavation industries have given our species the tools to tear down mountains, create or destroy massive forests, and even create new islands on similarly short timescales.
We are discovering materials and building techniques that allow us to expand into ever-harsher environments. Nanotechnologies allow us to control materials on a near atomic scale, by harnessing a deep understanding of chemistry. Bio-nanotechnologies use microbes to perform an astounding number of chemical and structural processes. Used in concert, we can use that control to recapture waste, and eliminate the discarding of resources.
This vision is at great variance with common wisdom, which is based on an industrial society that predates this level of material control. While the technologies are still mostly in basic research phases, and thus the purview of agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the applications, many of which are near-term, cut across a myriad of missions throughout government and business. By embracing these technologies and furthering their development through a unified S&T vision, the US can lead in bringing the beneficial aspects of the environment and materials to rapid fruition. A DoSc could carry this vision forward.
Many of the crosscutting S&T research domains raise issues of ethics, safety, health, contamination, validation, and other procedural concerns in how the research is conducted, or whether it is conducted at all. In order to avoid a race to the bottom, or unilaterally abdicating US leadership in certain research areas through the self-imposition of restrictions, international agreements and standards are often required. A DoSc could much more powerfully represent US interests in international discussions, compared to individual agencies and representatives. There are multiple examples of serious issues that need resolution; we consider a few examples in the following.
The US government has a strong history of opposing the application of technologies to controversial areas of research, as was the case with stem cell research. This made it hard for the US biotech industry to compete with the rest of the world in exploiting these new technologies, even though the science was first developed in the US. This trend is continuing as Congress and agencies like the FDA and NIH, have restricted human genetic modification research.11 Just as with stem cell research, this strategy, as currently constituted, will lead to cures and treatments being developed abroad instead of here in US facilities and hospitals.12
The international community varies in its openness to this new era of medical research – with some countries strongly opposing it and others deciding to set up virtually no barriers.13 There is an effort underway to create a set of international standards and guidelines for genetic research, but in the meantime, China ignores pressure to exercise caution with this kind of research.14 In fact, China has the world’s largest primate research capability, and shows little to no moral/ethical obstacles toward clinical experimentation,15 potentially leading to faster applications. For example, the Chinese company BGI currently dominates the genetic sequencing industry,16 with the result that China has become the owner of more genetic data than any other country. Researchers are lining up and likely will continue to use their genetic engineering infrastructure to discover the secrets of the genome.
In a similar vein, Chinese research in neuroscience is based on a national strategy, but seems less likely to conform to the strictures of US neuroscience research. As a result, the continued US leadership in neuroscience research is not guaranteed, given the comfort levels of US research in experimentation. The concern is that asymmetric restrictions might limit US leadership of the most important neuroscientific breakthroughs that will revolutionize the way people learn, communicate, and experience their lives.
In addition to fighting for a level playing field in the area of ethics and procedural restrictions on research, a DoSc might be far better at understanding the international competitive research environment, and thereby emphasize or prioritize US research efforts. At issue is whether a particular area has a sufficient critical mass of resources, as opposed to being spread out among multiple agencies with varying agendas.
Once again, we look to the example of China, which has developed an investment plan to bolster their science and technology capabilities over a period of years, to become competitive with the US. Many other countries have substantial technology catch-up plans (or leap-ahead plans), but China is a favorite example.
For example, to become a leader in microelectronics technology, the Chinese government plans on investing more than $100 billion between 2015 and 2025 into increasing manufacturing and innovation within the country17 with a goal of cornering the market irrespective of economic viability. China is also poised to lead the world in materials recycling and renewal processes, including developing alternative energy and carbon capture technologies. Already, China dominates the solar panel industry.18 To the extent that these industries of the future are founded on today’s scientific developments, the lack of focused US investments or strategies in these areas is reason for concern.
We do have federal dollars supporting university laboratories and agencies interested in specific applications, such as creating recycling systems for water and air reclamation aboard the international space station, yet we do not have a focused long-term federal policy on creating sustainable material reclamation. If we are interested in creating a future where we can adopt a circular economy whereby trash is fed into reverse 3-D printers, we are lacking the vision, resources, and coordination to get there.
CREATING A UNIFIED VISION FOR S&T
The government supports a large number of offices, agencies, and initiatives funding S&T, but in a chaotic and often haphazard way. The White House boasts having launched over 20 S&T initiatives during the Obama Administration. While portfolio diversity is useful in research endeavors, the separate agendas of each agency and the relative lack of visibility across agencies is not helpful to the efficient development of technology. The cacophonic nature of so many agencies and initiatives working independently means that few agencies are aware of which research efforts other agencies are funding. When multiple government agencies fund research in one lab, the lab must serve multiple masters and multiple missions. For example, the National Center for Atmospheric Research received $173.9M in FY2013 with 67% from NSF, 6% from NASA, 5% from DOE, 4% from DoD, 4% from the FAA, and 3% from NOAA.19 The incentives foster low-risk efforts that result in incremental increases to our knowledge base. The fundamental issue is that science and technology is always viewed, and funded, in the context of a restricted mission, and judged in terms of progress toward application to that mission.
A DoSc would be able to guide the various science agencies of the federal government in support of a unified vision for improving the S&T and R&D for our country. Rather than the current Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) or the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which serve only in an advisory capacity to the Administration and Congress, respectively, a DoSc would need the budgetary control to solve the larger issue of focused science missions that look forward to our future. We don’t specify the mechanics of how such a department would be formed and operate, but they might assign executive agents in specific departments to specific initiatives. The goal would be to maintain and strengthen our technology lead for the national security applications and economic benefits that accrue from driving the innovations.
A DoSc could identify and focus on major areas of S&T that will truly revolutionize the future. The DoSc would promote a national strategy for the most important areas of S&T, the ones anticipated to impact not just the US, but the world in ways that will forever change humanity’s story. Without something like the DoSc, we are forced to rely on our ad hoc approach to investing and managing our S&T/R&D portfolio. Our current strategy is based on a hope that progress will work out because no one else can match us in resources nor ingenuity. With a DoSc, we wouldn’t have to hope because we would have a plan for the future and an organization dedicated to making it happen.
1. Matt Hourihan and David Parkes, “Guide to the President’s Budget: Research and Development FY 2017,” American Association for the Advancement of Science. http://www.aaas.org/news/guide-presidents-budget-research-and-development-fy-2017.
3. Researchers Start Up Cell with Synthetic Genome. May 20, 2010 Nature, http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100520/full/news.2010.253.html.
4. Antonio Regalado, “We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes,” MIT Technology Review, February 8, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600689/we-have-the-technology-to-destroy-all-zika-mosquitoes.
5. Zhen Liu, Xiao Li, Jun-Tao Zhang, et al. “Autism-like Behaviours and Germline Transmission in Transgenic Monkeys Overexpressing MeCP2,” Nature, 2016; 530: 98–102. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v530/n7588/full/nature16533.html.
8. Carles Grau, Romuald Ginhoux, Alejandro Riera, et al. “Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies,” PLoS ONE (2014); 9(8): e105225, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105225.
9. “Summary for Policymakers,” IPCC Special Report, http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/special-reports/srccs/srccs_summaryforpolicymakers.pdf.
11. Center for Genetics and Society, “About Human Germline Gene Editing,” http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=8711.
12. Wayne Arnold, “Singapore Acts as Haven for Stem Cell Research,” Aug 17, 2016, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/17/business/worldbusiness/17stem.html?ex=&_r=0.
13. Heidi Ledford, Where in the world could the first CRISPR baby be born? Nature, 13 Oct 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/where-in-the-world-could-the-first-crispr-baby-be-born-1.18542.
14. Ewen Callaway, “Second Chinese Team Reports Gene Editing in Human Embryos,” April 8, 2016, http://www.nature.com/news/second-chinese-team-reports-gene-editing-in-human-embryos-1.19718.
16. Christina Larson, “Inside China’s Genome Factory,” MIT Technology Review, February 11, 2013, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/511051/inside-chinas-genome-factory.
17. “Chips on Their Shoulders,” The Economist, Jan 23rd 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21688871-china-wants-become-superpower-semiconductors-and-plans-spend-colossal-sums.
18. Ucilia Wang, How China Is Expanding Its Influence In Global Solar Market, Nov 25, 2014, Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/uciliawang/2014/11/25/how-china-is-expanding-its-influence-in-global-solar-market/#4662fe931436.
Dr. Charles Mueller works on identifying important S&T regulatory issues and developing sound regulatory policy solutions founded in the best available science. Additionally, Dr. Mueller is the lead on a project with the Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight within the DoD that is attempting to optimize the DoD’s current Corrosion Prevention and Control strategies by applying regulatory science & engineering principles. Prior to joining the Potomac Institute, Dr. Mueller obtained his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Maryland’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department in 2014. His dissertation involved the characterization of two putative DNA metabolizing enzymes in the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans and required a combination of molecular biology, cell biology, microscopy, and biochemical analyses. Before obtaining his doctorate he obtained a BA in Chemistry from Elon University and then worked at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health studying the effects of selenium on cancer using both live mouse models and tissue cultures. Dr. Mueller is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Mueller can be reached at: cmueller@potomacinstitute .org.
Dr. Rebecca McCauley Rench successfully defended her PhD in Geosciences and Astrobiology at the Pennsylvania State University in 2015. Her graduate work focused on the diversity and metabolic potential of cave microbial communities as they relate to early Earth analog environments and the search for life. A West Virginia native, she completed her undergraduate schooling at West Virginia University and holds a BA in Biology and a BA in Chemistry. Before starting her graduate education and after obtaining her bachelors degrees, Dr. McCauley Rench participated in disaster preparedness response as an AmeriCorps member in San Francisco. Dr. McCauley Rench is a Truman Scholar and NSF Graduate Research Fellow, as well as a Research Associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Dr. McCauley Rench can be reached at: rmccauleyrench @potomacinstitute.org.
Dr. Paul Syers is a Research Associate at the Potomac Institute, joining in September 2015. His current interests focus on hardware trust and policies related to the research and development of materials. For example, he is a member of the Regulatory Science and Engineering Center, which is currently looking at regulations on corrosion. He is also a Fellow of the Center for Revolutionary Scientific Thought (CReST). Dr. Syers received his PhD in Physics from the University of Maryland, having researched methods for improving the material quality of topological insulators. He has also received an MPhil from the University of Cambridge for research on high temperature superconductors, and spent some time in Germany researching wear and tear on commercial train tracks. Prior to that, Paul received a BS in Physics from Emory University. Dr. Syers can be reached at: psyers@potomacinstitute .org.