Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Comment on an Interview with Gene Skolnikoff

There is an interview with Gene Skolnikoff, who has a long and distinguished career dealing with science and foreign policy, in Bridges, a science policy journal published by the German Embassy. It is worth reading.

When asked about " the most pressing foreign policy issues where international science cooperation can contribute to the solution" Dr. Skolnikoff answered that the "biggest scientific issue right now is about arms control and nuclear weapons."

It is interesting that the question was posed in terms of "the most pressing" issue and the response focused on "the biggest" issue. Actually I think there is a tendency in the White House to see the most pressing issue as the biggest one, in the sense that it looms largest on the staff's horizon. There is not much time for reflection there.

Dr. Skolnikoff says:
I would put the issue of arms control and non-proliferation higher on the agenda than global warming. Global warming is obviously a major and serious issue. It will be very hard for the world to deal with, but we will. And especially if it starts being serious, if we see the damage, it will be easier to deal with.
Remember, the White House is an agency with more than 1,000 people, enjoying the power of the presidency and the support of the United States government. I can do more than one thing at a time, and must multitask! So too must the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Office should allocate its resources (staff, support, prestige, influence) across the spectrum of concerns very carefully. It must consider the importance of each problem, the urgency of taking action, the likely impact that it can have on the problem, synergies among its possible efforts, and put them in the context of the interests of the President, the pressures from the Congress, and the political impact on the electorate.

Nuclear proliferation is deserving of high priority because of the gravity of a possible nuclear attack (not to mention nuclear war), the number of nuclear weapons that are out there and the doubt about their containment, the unequalled power of the American presidency to deal with nuclear proliferation, and the opportunity presented by the Obama presidency.

I recall the old story of the man told that it would take 100 years to establish a great grove of trees in a botanical garden, who said that it was therefore urgent to start right away. Climate Change is a long term problem, but the later we put off working on it, the worse it will be and the harder it will be to deal with. Again, the Obama presidency is an exceptional opportunity to make a start on climate change both domestically and internationally.

The international influence of the United States as well as our domestic welfare depends on the economic health of the American economy, which in turn depends on the rate of innovation, including and especially on the rate of commercialization of science-based inventions. There are many issues involving both international aspects and science and technology policy/understanding involved in keeping the innovation system operating as well as possible.

From my point of view, the world's biggest problem is poverty, and by that I mean not only lack of income but also the syndrome of hunger, ignorance, illness and powerlessness that accompanies financial poverty. Science based technological innovation is a central concern for the alleviation of poverty and the United States is the country best situated to lead to a reestablishment of science-based development assistance.

I wish the very best of luck to the new administration, and especially to its science team in dealing with these and other problems (military technology, agricultural productivity, social dysfunctions).

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