Why Science Matters to the White House

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

As the revamped Cosmos show is apt to point out, science is all around us.  It’s a part of who we are, how we live, where we’re going.  From the subatomic scale, to the whole of the known universe, science connects us all.  It matters to us all.

Back here on Earth, and more specifically in Washington D.C., science is a matter of constant conversation.  Specifically, the research and development that the U.S. government supports.

Still, for as much as there are known and obvious benefits to the role scientific research plays, there are people who believe that we’re spinning our fiscally-restricted wheels.  That, perhaps, our time and efforts ought to be best spent elsewhere.  Doing other things.  Shelving science for the sake of other, more “immediate” needs.

Interestingly, the administration has something to say about that.  I asked Dr. Patricia Falcone, Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to tell me why science matters to the White House.

Photo: Dr. Patricia Falcone, Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (White House official photo)

Dr. Patricia Falcone, Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
(White House official photo)

“At Office of Science and Technology, I lead a team that works closely with [the] Department of Defense, other parts of the White House, and partners across government [to] make sure that the right cutting-edge science and technology tools and programs are being developed and implemented to support the administration’s national security priorities,” she tells me.

She adds that this includes ensuring that the federal research and development enterprise is working to create tools that can thwart cyber, biological and nuclear threats as well as improve trans-border security and the nation’s intelligence capabilities.

“We also work to keep the DoD’s in-house research and development capabilities strong, speed the development of new technologies, and ensure the department is in the best position to inspire, attract, and retain a world-class science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce.”

And speaking of STEM, why are you interested in science/technology?  Tell me a little about what draws you to the STEM fields.

“Well, I’m an engineer,” Dr. Falcone explains, “and have been drawn to it since I was told that engineering was for folks who liked math and science and wanted to use them to solve real problems.  Also, teachers and guidance counselors told me that there were many scholarships available for students studying engineering and that there would be good jobs in engineering after I finished my education.”

“In my experience, STEM expertise is applicable to almost all kinds of problem solving, and is a foundation for solutions to many of society’s biggest challenges.”

We talk a lot about the importance of science, the necessity of research and development, but in your own words, why does “SCIENCE MATTER”?

In terms of national security, science matters a lot. It’s the basis for keeping our active service members safe, protecting our citizens at home and ensuring our military has cutting edge tools and technologies.”

Science and technology, Dr. Falcone says, enable solutions to be agile and responsive to any situation. “Many people don’t realize that research and science are critical—whether it’s research on super strong materials that can protect soldiers in extreme environments, the design of robots that can investigate or deliver cargo to uncharted or dangerous terrains and so much more—science and technology are at the core of the national security enterprise.”

So, let’s talk about security.  Specifically, the security of American citizens. What do you think makes science and technology for national security unique and why?

“Doing national security science and technology means much more than being in a lab coat,” Dr. Falcone points out. “It means you’re being called upon to apply your scientific and engineering expertise to some incredibly tough problems, with real consequences in domains where the challenges have never been seen before. It’s about being agile, and being able to use your skills and know-how to create solutions that can really work.”

March is Women’s History Month.  In the spirit of celebrating women, what is it like to be a woman at the top of your game in STEM and national security science and technology policy?

“It’s been great fun. Working for President Obama in the White House is an honor and an incredible opportunity to serve the country in an administration that truly ‘gets’ the value of science, technology and research – and their importance to keeping our nation strong and secure. I’ve enjoyed an incredibly fulfilling career so far. I’ve been working in this field for more than thirty-five years, and the landscape looks quite different than when I started – with more diverse perspectives being brought to the table – but there’s still a ways to go.”

Let’s talk a little bit about kids.  Specifically, the future scientists of America.  If you could give a piece of advice to young people, especially young women, interested in pursuing science or technology generally, or even national security science and technology, what would that advice be?

“Don’t be afraid to speak up, work hard and pursue your passion,” she says.  “The STEM fields are full of opportunities to develop thriving careers that both pay well and make a positive difference. The academics can be tough at times, but they can carry you far – girls and boys should equally feel empowered to take on the challenge of choosing a STEM major in school and enjoy the many kinds of opportunities and open doors that follow as a result.”

Why is supporting and funding science and research such an important priority for this administration?

“Beyond just national security, the federal science and technology enterprise writ large fuels many of the kinds of breakthrough discoveries and game-changing new technologies that keep our country on the cutting edge.”

“Research can lead to new products and services that form the basis for new, job-creating companies, medicines that improve health, and transformative technologies that change the way we live, work, and play. Keeping this engine of innovation churning is a key priority for the president.”

I know the president has been an outspoken proponent of science and technology research and development.  Why is the administration dedicated to fostering an interest in science and technology, especially in young people and underrepresented groups – like women and girls?

“President Obama has often said that diversity is one of America’s greatest assets,” Dr. Falcone explains.  “It makes good sense to tap into the full talent pool and diversity that our country has to offer, bringing different perspectives, skills, and experiences to the table. Today, women and minorities are underrepresented in the STEM professions. We’re working hard to help move the needle in the right direction by promoting education programs that encourage and inspire girls to pursue STEM, increasing opportunities for STEM mentorship to support young women throughout their STEM careers, and more.”

Now for my crazy question.  The one I ask everyone.  If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“That’s a really tough question to ask an engineer! It leads me to ask so many others…would the trip be permanent? Is it limited to just one location in space? How long would I need to spend there? Could I bring anything or anyone with me? What comes to mind is traveling backward and forward to different stages of my kids’ lives – in the past and in the future. That’d be my choice.”

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

“Thanks for having me on Armed with Science!”

When it comes to advocates of science and technology, Dr. Falcone, you’re always welcome.

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Tell us why #sciencematters to you!  Leave a comment below or on Facebook and Twitter!

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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