Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Why Soil Rocks

    Editor's note: 2015 is the UN-designated International Year of Soils. In celebration of soil, OSTP’s Associate Director for Science Jo Handelsman – microbiologist and soil enthusiast – will be taking to the OSTP blog throughout this year to share stories of the science behind this critical resource and how it continues to shape our economy and society in ways big and small.

    2015 is the UN-designated International Year of Soils – one of the world's most important resources that will help determine the collective future for inhabitants of the Earth. Here we join the celebration of the services provided by this critical resource and set out to prove once and for all that soil does, indeed, rock.

    Soil is the living, breathing skin of the Earth1. It takes millennia to create and just a few short years to deplete. In every sense, it is essential to human existence – it provides nutrients essential to crop and animal production; it nourishes plant-life that provides shelter and habitat; it yields potent drugs that promote human health; and so much more.

    Many earlier societies recognized this quite directly, often to the point of revering or worshipping the soil. In more recent history, Americans and their Presidents have also paid great tributes to soil. Franklin Delano Roosevelt one said:  “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” And Thomas Jefferson remarked:  “While the farmer holds the title to the land, it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.”

    But, amidst the industrial age and urbanization, the rich tradition of honoring soil has eroded. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this trend than the popular reference to soil as “dirt.”

    This alias obscures the complex, life-giving properties of soil – from which the forests and all other plants on Earth take nourishment and upon which so much of our existence depends.

    Soil is a complex system of minerals derived from bedrock and organic components from animal, plant, and microbial activity. The organic and geologic aspects of soil are in dynamic interaction – with minerals shaping microbial life, and microbial activity changing minerals. The physical and biological features of most soils have been shaped by millennia of natural events and decades or centuries of human intervention.

  • Engaging Internationally on Climate Science

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just concluded its 41st session in Nairobi – continuing the tradition of rigorous international scientific collaboration to better understand climate change, its impacts, and society’s options to address this global challenge. The IPCC is a unique partnership between nearly 200 governments and the scientific community, bringing together many of the world’s top scientists and experts to produce comprehensive assessments of the state of knowledge on climate change. 

    The fifth and most recent IPCC assessment report was completed this past October, including three volumes of findings drawn from the vast amount of research that has been done over the last seven years on climate science, impacts, and responses. Among its key conclusions: “human influence on the climate system is clear,” and human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases are the “highest in history.”  The Assessment also reported “it is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The oceans will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level will continue to rise.” 

    These sobering conclusions, resulting from the collaborative work of hundreds of climate specialists from around the world, including dozens from the United States, reinforce those of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment and underscore the need to fully implement President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

    This week’s convening of IPCC representatives in Nairobi was a transitional meeting for the IPCC, with discussions focusing on ways to organize the next cycle of assessment to ensure that our knowledge base about climate science continues to expand in ways that are informative for decision makers and citizens around the world.

    Discussion outcomes included that the IPCC will retain continuity in its basic approach of producing assessment volumes addressing physical science; impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and mitigation, and that a synthesis would be developed to integrate the findings of these three reports. Delegates decided that the next comprehensive assessment cycle will last between five and seven years, as has been the practice and that, as in the past, the IPCC is likely to produce one or more “special reports” to assess specific cross-cutting topics. 

  • Investing in Research to Help Unlock the Mysteries of the Brain

    On April 2, 2013, President Obama launched the Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a Grand Challenge designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. Since then, the BRAIN Initiative has grown to include five Federal agencies. The BRAIN Initiative remains a top priority for the Administration, which is why the President’s 2016 Budget proposes increasing funding for the BRAIN Initiative from about $200 million in FY 2015 to more than $300 million in FY 2016.

  • Calling All Innovators: Apply to Serve the Nation as a Presidential Innovation Fellow

    PIF logo

    Today, we are very excited to announce that we are on the lookout for more innovators and technologists to serve the nation as Presidential Innovation Fellows.

    The Fellowship brings talented, diverse individuals from outside government to team up with top federal innovators to tackle some of our country’s most pressing challenges. Acting as a small team alongside federal agency “co-founders,” Fellows will work quickly and iteratively to turn promising ideas into game-changing solutions.

    As always, the Fellows will focus on national priorities, leveraging the best principles and practices of the innovation economy to help create positive impact in the span of months, not years. This is an opportunity to truly transform how government works for the people it serves.

    Projects will focus on topics such as:

    • Education: Fellows will work with myriad agencies to help make education more accessible to more Americans.
    • Jobs and the economy: Fellows will work on fueling the economy and stimulating job growth through innovation and improved opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes.
    • Climate change: Fellows will help our country and its communities prepare for the impacts of climate change.
    • Health and patient care: Fellows will leverage innovation to save lives, provide better access to benefits and programs promoting quality of life.

  • Satellite Launches with Mission to Monitor Space Weather

    We know too well that weather on Earth can affect our daily lives. But what about weather in space? Solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and other types of space weather have the potential to disrupt a range of critical infrastructure, including telecommunications, power grids, and GPS applications. Such disruptions could pose significant threats to our safety, security, and economy.

    That’s why last night’s launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a NOAA satellite, is so important. An assessment requested by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy identified DSCOVR as the best option for meeting the Nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring needs. DSCOVR is the result of collaboration by three Federal agencies – NOAA, NASA, and the Air Force. From its perch a million miles away from us on Earth, it will enhance our Nation's ability to plan for and respond to the hazards associated with space weather. 

  • Targeting Tumors with Particle Beams

    Today, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy (DOE) are each announcing the selection of several new research awards to advance particle beam therapies for the treatment of cancer.  Particle beam approaches use directed protons — or heavier ions, such as carbon ions — to target and kill cancerous tissue.  Because the delivered particles interact strongly with tissue at a certain distance within the body that depends on the energy of the beam, the damage to surrounding healthy tissue can be minimized, offering an important possible alternative or supplement to more conventional radiotherapy (using x-rays or gamma rays), chemotherapy, and surgery.  At present, there are 14 proton therapy centers in the United States; there are only a few carbon ion therapy facilities worldwide, but none are in the United States.  The NCI awards announced today support planning for the establishment of a Center for Particle Beam Radiation Therapy as a national research resource, and the DOE awards address development of improved hardware that could shrink the size, increase the maneuverability, and considerably reduce the steep costs of particle beam therapy equipment.

    The Planning Grant awards for the national research center are being made by NCI.  The planned center would serve as a research adjunct to an independently created and funded, sustainable clinical facility for particle beam radiation therapy. Ultimately, the proposed center is expected to perform clinically relevant research using ion beams.  The planning grants include pilot projects that will enable a research agenda in particle beam delivery systems, dosimetry, radiation biology, and/or translational pre-clinical studies.  NCI encourages other researchers to collaborate with the awardees in advancing the capabilities for particle beam therapies.

    The DOE awards are being made under the Accelerator Stewardship Program.  The machinery needed to produce and control particle beams, such as synchrotrons, cyclotrons, and related beam delivery systems, is expensive and complex.  This machinery, however, can be used in a variety of fields, ranging from high-energy physics to materials science to medical treatment.  The DOE program has the responsibility for long-term, fundamental research and development of such instrumentation.  The new efforts will support improvements in the generation of the accelerated particles and in the powerful magnets that direct the charged particle beams, aiming to make these key components smaller, lighter, more versatile, and potentially less expensive.

    DOE and NCI collaboration on this topic has included a cosponsored workshop on ion beam therapy that helped to define needs and challenges of the field.  Continued teamwork across Federal agencies with related but distinct missions and expertise, including the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Energy, will contribute greatly to researching the potential benefits and advancing the practicality of particle beam approaches to cancer treatment.

    For more information on these awards, see the individual agency announcements from NCI (synopsesprogram information) and DOE (synopses, program information).

    Altaf H. (Tof) Carim is Assistant Director for Research Infrastructure at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy