Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Doing Diligence to Assess the Risks and Benefits of Life Sciences Gain-of-Function Research

    Following recent biosafety incidents at Federal research facilities, the U.S. Government has taken a number of steps to promote and enhance the Nation’s biosafety and biosecurity, including immediate and longer term measures to review activities specifically related to the storage and handling of infectious agents. 

    As part of this review, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Department of Health and Human Services today announced that the U.S. Government is launching a deliberative process to assess the potential risks and benefits associated with a subset of life sciences research known as “gain-of-function” studies. With an ultimate goal of better understanding disease pathways, gain-of-function studies aim to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility.

    Because the deliberative process launching today will aim to address key questions about the risks and benefits of gain-of-function studies, during the period of deliberation, the U.S. Government will institute a pause on funding for any new studies that include certain gain-of-function experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.

    During this pause, the U.S. Government will not fund any new projects involving these experiments and encourages those currently conducting this type of work – whether federally funded or not – to voluntarily pause their research while risks and benefits are being reassessed. The funding pause will not apply to the characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses unless there is a reasonable expectation that these tests would increase transmissibility or pathogenicity. 

  • Leveling the Playing Field for All Children: Federal, State, and Local Efforts to Bridge the Word Gap

    Earlier this year, President Obama highlighted the importance of supporting learning in our youngest children to bridge the “word gap” and improve their chances for success in school and in life, and he called for an all-hands-on-deck effort to make progress on this issue.

    Research shows that during the first few years of life, a poor child hears roughly 30 million fewer total words than his or her more affluent peers. This is known as the “word gap,” and it can lead to disparities not just in vocabulary size, but also in school readiness, long-term educational and health outcomes, earnings, and family stability, even decades later.

    Today, the Administration, along with Too Small to Fail and the Urban Institute, is hosting a White House event on Federal, state, and local efforts to bridge the word gap. Participants – including local leaders and non-profit, philanthropic, and academic leaders – are responding to the President’s call to action and working together to address this challenge by sharing best practices and growing the evidence base of effective interventions.

    The Administration will be announcing a coordinated effort by the Department of Education (ED), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to help parents, caregivers, and teachers on this critical issue (to see the Fact Sheet in full, click here):

    • HHS will challenge innovators by sponsoring an “incentive prize” to build low-cost technologies that help parents engage in more high-quality verbal interaction with their young children;
    • HHS will support a new research network to help connect academics from multiple disciplines to contribute to word gap solutions;
    • ED and HHS will work with the twenty Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge states to address the word gap and support sharing of best practices;
    • HHS, in partnership with ED and Too Small to Fail, will develop a Word Gap Toolkit that will include a suite of resources for parents, caregivers, and teachers on enriching the language environment of our youngest children;
    • IMLS will work with Reach Out and Read (ROR) to create a “prescription to the library” that provides a new way for pediatricians to encourage reading and library use, as well as a deeper partnership to address the word gap that will likely include over 150 libraries and 75 museums;
    • ED and HHS will co-develop a toolkit to help parents identify high-quality early learning programs; and
    • HHS and ED with a host of philanthropic partners will announce a $2 million contract awarded to the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on policies that best support the development and educational success of young children who are dual and English Language Learners.

    In addition to these Federal announcements, we are seeing multi-sector leadership to address this challenge. Today the State of Georgia is announcing efforts to further develop a state-level coalition that strives to bring language nutrition to every child in Georgia. Talk With Me Baby empowers parents and caregivers with the knowledge and resources they need to provide early language exposure to babies. By integrating language nutrition coaching as a core competency across large-scale workforces of nurses, WIC nutritionists, and early education professionals, Georgia hopes to systematically strengthen and reinforce the capacity of all parents and caregivers to deliver vital language nutrition to children starting at birth.

    Too Small to Fail (TSTF) is announcing plans to convene state, city, and local leaders to share ideas; provide capacity-building webinars on how to develop and bolster local word gap campaigns; and, provide a road map and strategic resources to support local efforts to tackle the word gap. Additionally, they will share informationbased on lessons learned from its pilot cities in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Oakland, California, on communications, parent education, community partnerships, implementation and evaluation for other interested localities.

    We hope to build on this momentum and see even more follow-on work in the months and years to come. If you’re interested in learning more about the day’s events or joining this effort, please email us at

    Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at OSTP.

  • Bootstrapping a Solar System Civilization

    In one of my meetings with NASA, a senior official with the space agency once observed, “Right now, the mass we use in space all comes from the Earth. We need to break that paradigm so that the mass we use in space comes from space.”

    NASA is already working on printable spacecraft, automated robotic construction using regolith, and self-replicating large structures. As a stepping stone to in-space manufacturing, NASA has sent the first-ever 3D printer to the International Space Station. One day, astronauts may be able to print replacement parts on long-distance missions. And building upon the success of the Mars Curiosity rover, the next rover to Mars — currently dubbed Mars 2020 — will demonstrate In-Situ Resource Utilization on the Red Planet. It will convert the carbon dioxide available in Mars’ atmosphere to oxygen that could be used for fuel and air — all things that future humans on Mars could put to use.

    There’s interest outside government as well, with various private companies that see a potential business in mining of asteroids and celestial objects for use in space.

    Recently, I caught up Dr. Phillip Metzger, a former research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center who has recently joined the faculty of the University of Central Florida, to discuss the longer term goal of “bootstrapping a solar system civilization.”

  • Nanotechnologies Support National Progress

    The Federal Government has invested over $20 billion in nanotechnology research over the past 13 years, yielding fruitful work that has successfully helped create the building blocks of nanoscience. Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The report, PCAST’s fifth review of the NNI, concludes that the nanotechnology community is at an important turning point. 

    The NNI vision is to help realize a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry with cross-cutting societal impact in fields as diverse as medicine, energy, and computing. The report recommends that the Federal Government accelerate its activities aimed at facilitating the commercialization of the past decade’s worth of Federally sponsored research, thereby enabling the Nation to reap the benefits of this investment. To help focus the commercialization process, PCAST calls for the nanotechnology community to take on a series of national nanotechnology Grand Challenges.

    Specific nanotechnology Grand Challenges provide a way to turn revolutionary scientific advances into products that leverage existing opportunities and meaningfully address existing needs. In the report, PCAST recommends that the Federal Government establish and execute a process for engaging the nanotechnology community to identify specific Grand Challenges that best support these goals. PCAST also provides some specific recommendations regarding the formulation of the Grand Challenges and   innovation prizes and public-private partnerships to support them, as well as a focus on manufacturing challenges. Finally, the report details several program management updates to leadership initiatives, advisory input, evaluation metrics, and other areas to ensure the continuing success of the NNI. 

    New Federal activities can catalyze the creation of business partnerships among academic researchers, entrepreneurs, the venture capital community, and industries that produce promising nanotechnologies, while simultaneously harnessing the manufacturing sector to scale up these technologies for commercial application. In doing so, the Government and its partners in other sectors must also ensure that these advances are developed in an ecosystem that is sensitive and supportive to the progress the community has made addressing environmental, health, and safety issues associated with nanotechnology.

  • First Lady’s Fashion Workshop Highlights Growing Role of Makers and New Technologies in the Creative Economy

    On Wednesday, October 8, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a Fashion and Education Workshop at the White House with 150 high school and college students. The fashion industry is full of Makers – creative individuals who have a diverse range of skills that they use to create products and apparel that are innovative, stylish and functional. The workshop highlighted the growing impact that the Maker Movement, along with the development of new materials and technologies such as 3D printing, low-cost sensors, and micro-controllers are having in the fashion industry and the creative economy.

    First Lady Michelle Obama checks in with some of the workshop participants.

  • Big Data a Big Deal for First Recipients of Biomedical Big Data Grants

    In March 2012, the Obama Administration announced the commitment of $200 million by six Federal agencies as part of the Big Data Research and Development Initiative. Earlier this year, the Administration released a report entitled Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values. This report outlines steps the Administration is taking to promote the benefits of Big Data while preserving values such as privacy, fairness, and self-determination.

    To catalyze new biomedical Big Data research, the Obama Administration and the National Institutes of Health launched the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative in April 2013. Today, we are pleased to announce that the NIH has awarded a total of $32 million in new grants.