Overview: Since 2001, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has drawn on outside scientists, academics, engineers, and others to guide the President on effective policy for boosting innovation and scientific advancement in America. The council’s history and current work are crucial to know the future direction of government innovation.
What Is The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)?
Most recently chartered on September 30th, 2001, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is an independent federal advisory committee that draws members from academia, private industry, and public realms to discuss and make recommendations on science-related matters.
It has its roots in the Science Advisory Committee, which was founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to advise the government as rapid changes in technology and scientific discovery driven by the Great Depression and World War II outpaced government policy. The SAC was ended by Richard Nixon, although science committees returned with the Reagan administration in some capacity, and it was renamed PCAST for George H.W. Bush in 1990.
PCAST also has some roles required of it Congress. In particular, it’s been asked to represent the executive branch in Congress on topics related to the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 and the 21st Century Nanotechnology Act.
Who Serves on PCAST?
In the past, a wide range of experts has volunteered for the council, ranging from Disney CEO Bob Iger to current member Eric Lander, who was one of the key leaders of the Human Genome Project and also holds a cabinet position as Science Advisor to the President. The mix of volunteers tends to reflect the concerns of the time. For example, in the Reagan area, the committee was heavily tilted towards nuclear physics, as there was still a belief that nuclear war was possible. You can still see a faint echo of this in the current board, as it’s largely funded by the Department of Energy, which is responsible for much of the “on the ground” civilian nuclear work.
Part of this role is to set a standard for other governments to follow. For example, PCAST has served as a model for other “Big Science” programs, like the Global Science Forum, which have become enduring drivers of government innovation at the international level.
The current administration has appointed one of the broadest mixes of both scientists and Americans to the committee, with a range of expertise including medicine, geology, computer science, social psychology, and astrophysics.
In that role, the committee assembles reports on a wide variety of scientific topics. The Obama-era group, for example, covered a vast number of topics from education technology to nanotech, all of which are available online.
What’s PCAST’s Current Focus?
In the broader sense, a letter sent from President Biden to Lander announcing his approach to PCAST sums up how the administration views the role of government innovation:
“I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world. This effort will require us to bring together our brightest minds across academia, medicine, industry, and government—breaking down the barriers that too often limit our vision and our progress…”
In a more specific sense, Biden laid out some clear focuses on government innovation:
- Pandemics: The first question asked was not just about the COVID-19 pandemic, but what we can learn about future pandemics and other medical risks, such as antibiotic resistance.
- Climate Change: Specifically, the committee has been tasked with using technology and economics to address climate risks, with the market reducing emissions and new approaches adding jobs and building stronger communities.
- Emerging Technologies: There is an enormous range of emerging technologies around the globe, and the committee has been tasked with determining how America can become, or remain, competitive as other governments and groups begin working with these potentially risky tools.
- Building More Interest In STEM: Finally, the last two questions are tied to both supporting current STEM practitioners and organizations while building the tools the scientists and engineers of the future will need to learn, grow, and be successful across America.
While the committee has assisted with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also made progress on the other questions while making it clear they view them as interlinked. In particular, the gap between pure research conducted by universities and applied science performed by the private sector.
For example, PCAST has held listening sessions on American competitiveness in emerging technologies. These panels have included notable academics such as MIT economist Jon Gruber, who has argued that most of the innovation and economic growth over the last twenty years in the US has been concentrated, with capital along with it, in just five cities.
This was followed up by work with the Commerce Department to send $1 billion in pandemic relief funds to “regional technology clusters.” The idea of this approach is that areas with industries such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, or renewable power would receive funding to invest in infrastructure improvements, partnerships with public universities, and support for small manufacturers to join the broader supply chain.
The geographical aspect is also important. Despite the hype around a handful of cities, who uses that technology, and why is rapidly spreading? Much of America’s green energy will be generated in the Midwest, for example. And where people work most closely in an industry is where innovation tends to happen. As the next few years in government innovation unfold, expect PCAST to find more ideas across the country.
This offers a sense of the broader goal, to foster homegrown innovation through both the private market and the public sphere via universities and other institutions that are already conducting research. Combined with the ongoing efforts of government innovation, it’ll be fascinating to see what fruit this work bears.