Science Corner: Mail to the Chief

President Obama in conversation with NIH Director Francis Collins, NCI investigator Marston Linehan, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Photo: NIH)

President Obama in conversation with NIH Director Francis Collins, NCI investigator Marston Linehan, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Photo: NIH)

For better or worse, science topics haven’t been a big part of the conversation around the current US election cycle. Job creation and healthcare costs obviously factor more directly into the daily lives of many voters. On the other hand, well, let’s just say I would have liked to replace a few of the debate questions to learn more of what the candidates are thinking about climate change or gene editing. Granted I am always up for more science, but it’s not unthinkable. Sixteen years ago, stem cell research featured prominently in the national conversation. More recently, Obama led a push in neuroscience with his BRAIN initiative. While there isn’t necessarily a single binary decision facing the nation at this moment, there is still plenty of science with broad implications to talk about.

Helpfully, AAAS has put together a primer on six science topics of national import for which the president could supply leadership and guide policy. While nominally addressed to that incoming president, this briefing is worth everyone’s consideration because these issues could touch everyone’s lives. The risks from ever-changing infectious pathogens and rising sea levels, the ethics of gene editing, the future of brain research and artificial intelligence, and the challenge of communicating risk when so many of our intuitions are wrong are all discussed. Applications and policy questions are emphasized, making the relevance clear.

As with any finite list, there’s room to discuss what should or shouldn’t have made the cut. Should climate change have been covered more comprehensively? Should there have been something about the space program? Do we need clearer national leadership on autonomous vehicles? I’d be curious to hear which areas of current scientific exploration you want the next president to make a priority. And since these are topics of public significance, if there are any you’d like to personally learn more about, I’d love to hear about that too.

And of course there’s more to the world than just science. For those in other disciplines, what would make your top 6 if you had a chance to tell our incoming leadership what to focus on? Which leaders in your field should the president be consulting?

(And if you need a break from thinking about the election in any capacity, join David Parry and I for an impromptu chat at the intersection of theology, literary theory, and science with a dash of life, the universe, and everything.)

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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