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Positive change requires direct words, Baird tells science leaders

09 December 2009

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington, 3rd District) told science society leaders in Washington, D.C., last week that the public needs straight talk about science and environmental challenges if positive change is to occur.Brian Baird (left) and Ralph James

Baird framed his comments to the Council of Scientific Society Presidents on 4 December with his concerns over problems in the oceans and their role in determining the quality of the environment: where and how we live, and what we eat, drink, and breathe. Among those problems, Baird said, rapid ocean acidification is becoming a major threat to survival of oysters, crabs , and other shellfish species off the coast of Washington State, and thus becoming a commercial as well as an environmental threat.

(Read a University of Washington report about ocean acidification.)

Baird chided his audience about how scientists communicate with the public and policy-makers, saying that the scientific style of qualifying every statement and using unfamiliar terms does not aid understanding. For example, he said, why choose to speak about temperature rises in degrees Celsius, a unit not used in the U.S. outside science? "And speaking of 'global warming' may invoke a response of, 'we can just turn up the air conditioning,' unless we provide a more complete picture," he said. Noting the strong pro-science stance of the current administration, Baird urged science leaders to partner actively with the political establishment to meet challenges that science can help to solve.

Baird challenged the group to step forward with an energy statement with real and immediate impact, noting there is no quick and easy solution, no "deus ex machina" that is going to turn the situation within a few decades. Rather than proposing at the Copenhagen Climate Summit a target for 50 or 80% carbon-emissions reduction by 2050, he suggested setting an immediate goal of a 20% reduction in 20 days. Baird cited reducing superfluous room lighting as one tactic; short "field" showers such as those he took when visiting U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is another.Arthur Bienenstock, Patrick Gallagher, Eugene Arthurs

The group rose to Baird's challenge; read the CSSP plan.

Innovation investment

Turning to the economy, Baird noted U.S. lack of investment in new energy technologies such as wave-power systems. He praised the results of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, noting that the program is currently under review for refunding and improvement, and cautioned against protectionist tendencies and isolationism.

Asked by Ralph James, President Elect of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, what the U.S. is doing about translating research investment into jobs, Baird said this is of utmost importance, and decried the many already-lost manufacturing jobs that stemmed from U.S. research.

He urged continued support for education of a technically competitive workforce, and recommended immediately awarding permanent residency cards to foreign students who have completed higher degrees in science and technology to help leverage the pattern of job generation resulting from employing these skilled individuals.

Baird said the U.S. has a potential advantage in its strong venture capital market but needs to review tax incentives for investment in jobs in the U.S. In addition, he said, the system of federal annual budgeting and aversion to multi-year commitment has worked against needed long term investment.

Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation, also spoke to the CSSP, urging their attention to developing innovation strategies to lead beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

He said that ARRA has helped lay the groundwork for that future, by aiding:

  • development of the field of the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) to create a data infrastructure to support evidence-based science policy decisions.
  • launch of STAR (for Science and Technology and America's Recovery), a collaboration among NSF and other agencies under the Office of Science and Technology Policy; objectives include development of a data-driven system for tracking the impacts and returns on all government R&D programs.

Bement said he is pleased with President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" initiative, which calls upon scientists to become more engaged in science education in grades K-12, during and after school. SPIE is providing opportunities for its members to support and become involved in these efforts through sponsorship of National Lab Day culminating in May 2010 and partnership in the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival in October 2010.

Photo credits, from top, above:

Congressman Brian Baird (left) and SPIE President Elect Ralph James attended the recent Council of Scientific Society Presidents meeting in Washington, D.C.

From left, CSSP Chair Arthur Bienenstock with attendees Patrick Gallagher, Director of NIST, and SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs.

SPIE, the international society for optics and ohotonics, was founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. Serving more than 188,000 constituents from 138 countries, the Society advances emerging technologies through interdisciplinary information exchange, continuing education, publications, patent precedent, and career and professional growth. SPIE annually organizes and sponsors approximately 25 major technical forums, exhibitions, and education programs in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific, and supports scholarships, grants, and other education programs around the world. For more information, visit SPIE.org

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