Last Wednesday, the Biden Administration announced the appointment of Princeton professors Andrea Goldsmith and Stephen Pacala, as well as Princeton alumni John Dabiri ’01 and Terence Tao GS ’96, to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
The panel is led by geneticist Eric Lander ’78 and co-chaired by Nobel laureate Frances Arnold ’79 and planetary scientist Maria Zuber. All in all, Princetonians comprise one-fifth of the panel’s thirty members.
The White House describes PCAST as “the sole body of external advisors charged with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the President and the White House.”
While the President has other advisors on science and technology, what differentiates PCAST is that its members are not government employees and serve voluntarily. It is composed of leaders in the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering who work in industry, academia, and non-profit organizations.
Goldsmith is the Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She is considered a leader in the field of wireless communications and was the first woman to win the Marconi Prize, considered the highest award in telecommunications research. Goldsmith is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Although this is her first time in government, Goldsmith always held an inclination towards public policy.
“I was almost a political science major, so I had an interest in government and policy and the impact of government on society and individuals,” she said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “It was really about ... how the government can work for the people, how it can have a positive influence on people and on society.”
Goldsmith is also an entrepreneur, having founded and served as Chief Technical Officer for two telecommunications start-ups. She sees this as a significant part of her expertise in advising public policy.
“Entrepreneurship and technology transfer is another really important area that PCAST is looking at,” Goldsmith explained. “How do we benefit from the investment that we're doing in research, such that that research is transferred into technology and products without cannibalizing the notion of doing fundamental research?”
Goldsmith elaborated that going forward, a goal for both the government and universities should be bridging what she calls “the valley of death,” which is the long period of time in technology development between the gestation of a product idea and the beginning of production. She envisions the Princeton area becoming an “innovation hub,” where academic and industrial expertise can combine to support a full product life cycle in the area.
Pacala is the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University. Pacala is also the director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI), which brings together scientists, engineers, and public policy experts to address climate change.
CMI is sponsored by BP, an energy company with a track record of large carbon emissions. Concerns have been raised that CMI’s research may be compromised by such a relationship.
In addressing these concerns, Pacala talked more about the mission of BP and their values as a company: “It's not an accident that BP is currently the leader among fossil energy companies in their commitment to net-zero emissions,” he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “BP is going to decarbonize so that nothing they pull out of the ground is going to add CO2 to the atmosphere.”
In addition, Pacala stressed that BP has no say in how CMI spends the funds.
“They give the money to Princeton University, and we decide what to do with it,” he said.
Pacala also believes that education is a crucial tool for spreading awareness of the challenges the world is facing, and he noted that the panel will act with transparency.
“One of the things that PCAST is going to wrestle with is how we educate people in the country, how we prepare a workforce that leads to greater well-being nationally and worldwide. STEM education is a really critical part of that,” he said.
As one of the professors teaching ENV200: Environmental Nexus, Pacala believes that his experiences at PCAST will ultimately have an impact on his teaching philosophy.
“It’s inevitable that the information I uncover during the interactions [with PCAST] ... will find its way to my students,” he said.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ two of Pacala’s students provided insight into how Professor Pacala could contribute to PCAST.
“He’s definitely done a great job relaying ... academic information to people who aren’t necessarily pursuing that field,” said John Castleman ’24, a student in ENV200.
“I was able to come away from [Professor Pacala’s class] and really feel like I had a good, solid foundation on environmental issues, but that it wasn’t too much for a non-science ... person like me,” reflected Jonah Clatterbuck ’24, who took ENV200 last fall.
Two University alumni, Dabiri and Tao, were also appointed to PCAST. Dabiri, who graduated from Princeton with a BSE in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is now the Centennial Chair Professor at the California Institute of Technology, with appointments in both mechanical and aerospace engineering. Dabiri was also named a Macarthur “Genius” Fellow and currently serves as Chair of the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics, in addition to being a member of the NVIDIA Board of Directors.
Much like Goldsmith, this will be Dabiri’s first time serving directly in the government. Despite this, he discussed his long-held interest in service in an email to the ‘Prince.’
“Going back to my days as an undergrad at Princeton, the idea of being in the nation’s service was always ... encouraged,” he wrote.
Dabiri’s research focuses on unsteady fluid mechanics and flow physics, with applications as varied as wind energy, biomedicine, and propulsion. Dabiri explained to the ‘Prince’ that his background will allow him to advise PCAST in both theoretical and practical fields.
More practically, he hopes to advocate for “the important leadership role that the government can play in meeting generational challenges, especially where science and technology are involved.”
He cites, however, the necessity of engaging all communities — in particular, local and minority populations involved in such societal transitions. He attributes this interest in part to his time at the University.
“Studying engineering at a liberal arts university gave me an appreciation that solutions to our biggest problems require innovative technology, but that technology isn’t enough by itself,” he wrote. “It’s all of the other perspectives at a place like Princeton that ultimately make the science and technology impactful.”
Tao is a Professor of Mathematics and the James and Carol Collins Chair in the College of Letters and Sciences at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Tao is known for breadth of research in various mathematical areas. He is often referred to as the “Mozart of Math,” having won numerous prizes for his research, including the Fields Medal.
He sees this as a great opportunity to do something “outside the mathematical community” and to “actually have a chance to make recommendations,” he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
Tao believes that the “core mission” of PCAST is educating students. He thinks it is important that students understand what science actually is.
“Science is often provisional,” he explained. “The decisions change as the science improves.”
Tao also emphasized the accessibility of what is going on at PCAST.
“We can help make recommendations in a way that is hopefully grounded by science but makes it accessible to people who are not scientists,” he said.
Tao views the analytical skills of PCAST’s panel members as equally important to their individual expertise.
“There are people whose research expertise is directly important ... but I see the role of most of our members is to ask questions, to point out what’s missing in a plan,” he said.
When asked by the ‘Prince’ about this high ratio of Princetonians on the panel, Goldsmith speculated that Princeton’s liberal arts emphasis helps its STEM graduates to excel across fields.
According to Goldsmith, the Princetonians on the board “were educated in the broad liberal arts education, and I think that allowed them to achieve levels of success that they might not otherwise have achieved.”
When Biden appointed Lander and Zuber to chair PCAST, he said of them: “They are the ones asking the most American question, ‘What next?’”
Goldsmith sees this question as being inextricably linked to American leadership.
“My greatest aspiration for PCAST in the long term [is to] create a set of policies and procedures and actions that would, 20 to 30 years from now, put the United States at the forefront of science and technology,” Goldsmith explained. “And then, if we are at the forefront — and maybe we're not the only leaders but we are at the forefront — it will benefit humanity, all over the world.”
To Dabiri, the challenges the country faces — from climate change to an aging population — are clear.
“The big question is what to do about it,” he said. “I don’t claim to have the answer, but I look forward to helping our country think creatively about the way forward.”
“I’m fully committed to the idea that academic life carries with it a social contract and it's time to roll one’s sleeves up,” Pacala said. “That’s all I can promise to do.”
Sullivan Meyer is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com or at @sullymeyer4 on Twitter.
Melvi Agolli is a news contributor for the Prince. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @melviagolli on Insta.