Friday’s PCAST meeting: Science envoys, health IT, STEM education

July 18th, 2010 by Erwin Gianchandani Post a comment »

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held its July 2010 meeting at the National Academies in Washington, DC, on Friday.

The hearing began with a session on “Science, Technology, and Diplomacy” that featured the three founding members of the Science Envoys programBruce Alberts, Elias Zerhouni, and Ahmed Zewail – speaking candidly about their experiences as part of this new diplomatic effort, which places U.S. scientists in foreign nations to promote international relations. The three envoys shared insights they had gleaned while trying to improve diplomatic relations with Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.A.E.

A prevailing sentiment was the urgent need for a “focus on capacity building.” Instead of taking technologies to foreign nations, we need to teach these nations to teach themselves, the envoys reported. Further, they commented that, while STEM education is lacking in the U.S., it is even worse in developing nations. The world currently has an estimated shortage of 10 million teachers, and the science education per capita continues to decrease each year.

Each envoy reported receiving surprisingly warm receptions as a science diplomat – and felt the program should be expanded. The envoys also argued that the role of the “State Department scientist” could not likely be salvaged from its current status as “career-ending.” Instead, they urged science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, to adopt rotational programs to send experts to various foreign embassies for short periods of time.

All in all, the session presented hope that Science Envoys could be an effective tool in diplomacy in the future.

Later in the day, PCAST heard updates from two previously commissioned efforts:

- A panel on health information technology reported the completion of a draft report (to be made available to the public soon, following a final round of edits) that calls for strengthening the role of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT within the Dept. of Health & Human Services – primarily by advocating and promulgating standards for exchange and privacy of secure electronic health information – in an attempt to improve quality and safety of healthcare, while simultaneously reducing cost. Unfortunately, it appears the report will be fairly narrow in focus, specifically discussing only electronic medical records (EMRs) – and not HIT broadly.

- PCAST members evaluating STEM education described the hope of new technology in advancing education – including the creation of deeply digital materials (e.g., interactive simulations, videos, built-in tutors, etc.) that (a) are increasingly adaptive to what a student is learning, (b) assist in ongoing and cumulative assessments of students, and (c) provide professional development support to teachers; etc. The subcommittee co-chairs, Eric Lander and Jim Gates, signaled very clearly that these issues would be part of the final report – which may be ready by the September PCAST meeting. Lander and Gates again solicited feedback from the public about Ed Tech.

Please view an archived webcast of the hearing (see the PCAST website), and as always comments are greatly appreciated below.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director, & Chase Hensel, CRA/CCC Tisdale Fellow)