Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • We the Geeks: Miss America

    All across the United States, there is living evidence that scientists and engineers are not the nerdy, all-male, lab-coat-wearing, wallflowers pictured in the history books but include the full diversity of the nation. Bringing these images out of the shadows will inspire further diversity in STEM fields, as young people see inspiration in their teachers, communities, and mentors. 

    Some of the talented young women who competed for this year’s Miss America title have dreams not only of a crown but of solving the toughest health, technology, and environmental challenges facing the world. Competing for a coveted few STEM scholarships from the Miss America organization, the finalists have stories like many young women around this country inspired to pursue STEM. Sporting some serious STEM credentials, we will have a conversation about inspiration, goals, and overcoming challenges with these young women who are on career pathways to be scientists, engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs.

    On Wednesday, September 17 at 3:00 p.m. ET, the White House will host "We the Geeks: Miss America" to hear from the STEM scholarship winners as they share their stories from crowns to classrooms, personal role models, and advice for the next generation of women in STEM.

  • Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity in U.S. Laboratories

    Nearly every day, the American public is reminded of the critical role that life-sciences researchers and public health workers play in mitigating the threat of infectious diseases. Whether these diseases arise naturally in the United States or in other parts of the world, as is the case with the current unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, or are deliberately released to cause harm here at home, as occurred with the anthrax attacks in 2001, U.S. government scientists are charged with confronting threats to the health and well-being of the citizens, economy, and security of the United States. Working with pathogens in the laboratory is vital to ensuring that the United States and the global community possess a robust set of tools—such as drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines—to counter the ever evolving threat of infectious diseases. That’s why, when we learned earlier this summer of several incidents within the Nation’s premier laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, we immediately sought meaningful measures to address the underlying causes and reduce the risk that such incidents would occur again in the future.

    To this end, on August 19, 2014, the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy sent a joint memo to all federal departments and agencies involved in life-sciences research urging them to take immediate and longer-term steps aimed at addressing the underlying causes of the recent laboratory incidents and strengthening overall biosafety and biosecurity at federal facilities. We urged all relevant federal facilities—including extramural facilities that receive federal funding—to conduct a “Safety Stand-Down” in the near-term, during which senior leaders would review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols, and would develop and implement plans for sustained inventory monitoring.  Over the longer-term, we have established parallel processes by which federal and non-federal committees would review and generate specific recommendations to strengthen the government's biosafety and biosecurity practices and oversight system for federally-funded activities. We look forward to assessing and acting upon the recommendations as they are developed.  You can read the full memorandum here.

    The Administration takes seriously any issue that has the potential to place scientists, healthcare workers, or the American public at risk of accidental exposure to infectious pathogens. Therefore, in addition to this guidance, we strongly encourage non-federal scientists who work with infectious diseases to participate voluntarily alongside their federal colleagues in implementing the steps outlined in our memo.  Together, the life sciences community and its stakeholders can and will continue to have a safe and effective infectious-disease research enterprise of which the American people can be proud, and which will continue to provide the best therapies and other preventive capabilities here and around the world.

    Lisa Monaco is Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counterterrorism & Deputy National Security Advisor

    Dr. John Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Advancing an AIDS-Free Generation by Accelerating Children’s Treatment

    Earlier this month, at an event co-hosted by the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama at the African Leaders Summit, several new steps towards advancing the President’s goal of an AIDS-free generation were announced.  The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) launched the Accelerating Children’s HIV/AIDS Treatment (ACT) Initiative. ACT is a $200 million initiative ($150 million from PEPFAR and up to $50 million from CIFF) to double the number of children receiving life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ART) across ten African countries over the next two years.

    In 2013, only 24 percent of the 3.2 million children under the age of 15 living with HIV– 91 percent of whom lived in sub-Saharan Africa –were receiving ART. Without ART, half of the children living with HIV will die before their second birthday, and 80 percent will die before their fifth birthday. The new initiative will make a significant impact by enabling 300,000 more children living with HIV to receive ART.

  • Buying What Works: Case Studies in Innovative Contracting

    Last week, the White House announced the launch of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), a new team of America’s best digital experts dedicated to improving and simplifying the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government.  The USDS team has already begun to make progress by releasing the TechFAR Handbook, a guide that helps explain how Federal agencies can take advantage of existing procurement authorities to execute key plays in the Digital Services Playbook.

    The Federal Government has long used its buying power as one of the world’s largest customers to accelerate well-known innovations, from the first microchips to the Global Positioning System (GPS).  Today, Federal agencies continue to leverage innovative procurement practices that spur the private sector to develop advanced technologies to better serve the American people – and to pay only for successful results, not just best efforts.

    Today, the Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget are pleased to release the first version of Innovative Contracting Case Studies, an iterative, evolving document that describes a number of ways Federal agencies are getting more innovation per taxpayer dollar – all under existing laws and regulations. For example, NASA has used milestone-based payments to promote private sector competition for the next generation of astronaut transportation services and moon exploration robots.  The Department of Veterans Affairs issued an invitation for short concept papers that lowered barriers for non-traditional government contractors, which led to the discovery of powerful new technologies in mobile health and trauma care.  The Department of Defense has used head-to-head competitions in realistic environments to identify new robot and vehicle designs that will protect soldiers on the battlefield.

  • A Promising Pilot to Help Student Borrowers

    Investing in postsecondary education is among the smartest choices Americans can make. College completion opens doors and expands economic opportunity, leading to lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings over the course of a career. But tuition rates have risen significantly in recent decades, and obtaining a college degree increasingly depends on students’ ability to take out loans and manage repayment after leaving school. While most borrowers are able to repay their student loans, many struggle, and some fall behind.

    That’s why last month the President and his Administration announced a series of executive actions to help reduce the burden faced by student loan borrowers and make postsecondary education more affordable and accessible to American families. A centerpiece of this action plan is to improve the effectiveness of communications to borrowers about flexible repayment options the U.S. Department of Education offers to help ensure they stay on track with their payments. This includes income-driven repayment plans – Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn, and Income-Contingent Repayment – that link monthly payments to borrower incomes.

    We know borrowers are busy and that decisions about student loan plans can be complex and challenging. That’s why the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education has teamed up with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a group of experts who focus on effective, innovative strategies for helping government programs and communications better serve citizens. 

    In November 2013, Federal Student Aid, in collaboration with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, launched an e-mail campaign to increase awareness of Income-Driven Repayment and help borrowers make more informed decisions about loan repayment options given their circumstances. The campaign sent emails to borrowers who had fallen behind on their payments, had higher-than-average debts, had grace periods coming to an end, had deferred or entered forbearance because of financial hardship or unemployment, or some combination of the above. In total, the campaign sent emails to over three million borrowers last year and 221,000 submitted applications.

    The team embedded a rigorous, randomized-control pilot into the broader campaign, which measured the impact of e-mails designed based on insights from the behavioral sciences on action among borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days. These e-mails indicated income-driven repayment eligibility criteria, the benefits associated with taking action and the costs associated with inaction, and the relevant web-links and servicer contact information. Behavioral science research demonstrates that timely, clear and low-cost informational messages of this kind can help citizens better understand their options, make more informed decisions, and follow through on their intentions. 

    Results of the pilot are promising. Sending e-mails to borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days resulted in a statistically significant, four-fold increase in completed income-driven repayment applications. This effect translates into roughly 6,000 additional completed applications in just the first month after sending among the 841,442 borrowers in the pilot.

    We are working together to use insights from this trial to inform future communications and develop even more effective ways of reaching borrowers to help them stay on track.

    Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Ajita Talwalker Menon is the Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council.

     

  • Making for a Stronger Africa

    This month, the first class of the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Mandela Washington Fellows converged on Washington, D.C. for their inaugural Presidential Summit.  During the Summit, many of the Fellows joined the US Global Development Lab and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at Fab Lab DC to discuss the role of making in Africa’s economic and community development.

    Making for a Stronger Africa

    Mandela Washington Fellows gather to discuss how making will help shape Africa’s future. (Photo by Mike Star)

    The Maker Movement is transforming the way we design and produce things – both here at home and overseas. At this year’s first-ever White House Maker Faire, President Obama described making as “a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.” In recognition of the potential of young African visionaries to advance the Maker Movement, YALI is working to equip change-makers with the tools they need to foster progress across the continent.

    Community maker spaces are already springing up around the world, providing public access to tools and technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and low-cost modular electronics, which dramatically change the rules of invention - anyone with an idea can bring that idea to life. By democratizing the means to create, digital manufacturing lowers the barrier to entrepreneurship around the world, including in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa.

    In 2012, Togolese entrepreneur Sename Koffi Abdojinou founded WoeLab, a bootstrapped maker space and business incubator built on an ethos of community design and open-access hardware in low resource settings. Illustrating the power of this philosophy in action, WoeLab member Afate Gnikou invented a 3D printer made primarily from discarded electronics, or e-waste, scrapped from landfills. The invention’s design has been openly published, so makers across Africa and the rest of the world can leverage his ingenuity to sow the seeds of digital fabrication in their own communities.  This year at the Fab10 maker conference, WoeLab’s e-waste 3D printer was awarded the Global Fab Award.

    Maker spaces like Abdojinou’s WoeLab promote hands-on STEM education; they empower ordinary people to develop local solutions to the challenges faced in their communities; they encourage entrepreneurship.  In October 2013, Togo celebrated its ten most promising young entrepreneurs. Three of them came from WoeLab.

    Making for a Stronger Africa 2

    WoeLab inventor Afate Gniko with his e-waste 3D printer. (Photo by woelabo.com)