Episode 56: Endless Frontier: Science, Possibility, and Progress in the New Administration
January 22, 2021 @ 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm PDT
This week Biden elevated the Presidential Science Advisor to a cabinet position for the first time in U.S. History. In his appointment of Eric Lander (human genome project lead) as science advisor and leader of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Biden refers back to the first presidential science advisor, FDR’s Vannevar Bush. In 1945 Bush prepared a postwar report for FDR “Science the Endless Frontier.” It laid out the vast possibilities, economic growth and human improvement that the US science agenda might attain. If anything the possibilities are even greater today: deep tech, ai, synthetic biology, quantum science, renewable energy. Atoms, bits, joules, & minds are flowing across boundaries like never before. We are at the dawn of an era that might shift us from extractive business models to regenerative society enabling approaches that protect us as well as spaceship Earth.
On today’s show: The contemporary endless frontier! Biden’s appointments reflect a sense of optimism and possibility. And accountability. His science advisor comes from the life sciences which were arguable unprepared to meet the challenges of our pandemic year and hobbled in unforeseen ways. Vannevar Bush was famous for managing scientific challenges that had tangible development “ship it” deadlines (Radar, The Atomic Bomb, inspiring what became the Internet) while also forging through basic research. Today on Quarantime! scientists guide us through the vastness of this frontier, and its challenges. And Bush’s biographer & historian helps us understand today’s challenges through the lens of America’s first presidential science relationship, and the birth of the National Science Foundation, NIH and DARPA.
1) Vannevar Bush at the Frontier — First up is G. Pascal Zachary, Bush’s foremost biographer and a student of the science/industry/government/policy dance. How did Bush create out of whole cloth the national research and science establishment, spin it up for WWII, and then lead post war scientific progress. How did he set the basic research/applied solutions tradeoffs and what can we learn from him. And there is so much to learn. Bush famously poo-pooed funding the digital computer because it wouldn’t be ready by for World War II ( he was right, ENIAC lit up in December 1945.) But by then Bush had already published “As We May Think,” in July 1945 which imagined and (basically demanded) the invention of the internet and the World Wide Web to make all the required connections of post-war science. (That one took a while.) Bush’s vision is still with us and he was savvy enough to connect his vision to America’s deepest vision: the frontier, progress, better lives. Something that is now core to the Biden Admninistration.
2) Frontier: Entering the bio-century — Were joined by Dr. Megan Palmer who is the Executive Director of Bio Policy & Leadership Initiatives at Stanford University. She was one of the founding creators of the international genetic engineering competition for high school and undergraduate students (iGEM) and focuses on the social incentives, security, policy, and societal implication in the new wilderness that we’ve all stumbled into during this Pandemic. If we can make it through the torrential rivers of doubt, the mountains of complexity, and the cliffs of exponential “oops!” that may arise when Life science moves from atoms to bits and back again and becomes so easy to do that a child can boot up a new species and help cure or create the next pandemic as easily as posting a TikTok video, the wonders on the other side could help us save our planet and appreciate Nature more than ever before. She’ll share her journey and her excitement about the appointment of a life sciences pioneer to the cabinet and what challenges we’ll face as we go forth.
3) Frontier: As We Think— Cognitive scientist, author, and serial entrepreneur Gary Marcus is obsessed with how people think and how we learn. Babies who have no prior experience of anything make mental models with sparse data, navigate their world better than any robot could imagine, make decisions of intuition based on goals, curiosity and causal reasoning. A process which is exactly the opposite of the current darling of AI: deep learning and vast sets of training data. He brings this approach to his start up robust.ai as he works with robotics and AI pioneer Rodney Brooks to build robots that can intuit and construct models of their world, then succeed in original tasks. Gary speaks to the need for outlier thinkers in science: much of the scientific community thought he was crazy to doubt the advances being made in last few years, but now his efforts have helped organizations like Deep Minds realize it was them not Gary who were stumbling down a dead end path. Also on his mind: a fervent wish that American’s better appreciated science the scientific method, the precautionary principle and the life or death difference between one in a hundred and one in a million.