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.

  • Sharing the Stories of Ebola Innovators


    In December at the White House and again in his State of the Union Address, the President highlighted an innovative, cutting-edge solution to help fight Ebola—a re-imagined protective suit that is cooler, safer, and easier to remove. This innovation promises to help save lives and protect health care workers on the front lines of this and future epidemics.

    The suit, along with other state-of-the-art innovations such as shipping containers repurposed as treatment units, sensors that monitor patient care, and a low-cost battery-powered infusion monitor, were generated from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Ebola Grand Challenge for Development, launched by the President last September. They represent a creative way of doing business—mobilizing the world’s inventers, entrepreneurs, and doers to speed the development of cutting-edge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges – getting the right people to the table at the right time.

    In April, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in collaboration with USAID will highlight the stories of individuals and organizations who have imagined and implemented critical solutions to fight the Ebola epidemic.

    We need your help to identify innovators — individuals and organizations that have used their skills, grit, and leadership to help fight this epidemic through science, technology, and data.  We are seeking the stories of: makers, technologists, developers, and innovators who have created new products, tools, or services; researchers who have advanced bold new insights; and individuals and organizations that have created unprecedented collaboration across disciplines, institutions, and countries.

    Share the story of someone YOU know who has innovated to fight Ebola. Stories must be received by March 13, 2015, to be considered for inclusion in an upcoming event. In addition to describing the innovation and impact for each innovator, please also include information about any upcoming announcements or new steps that he or she has planned.

    Claudia Williams is Senior Health and IT Advisor in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Kushal Seetharam is an intern in the Science Division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • 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.