Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Engines of Discovery: U.S. National Labs and Research Facilities

    Last month, I shared some thoughts about why we do basic research. This month, I’d like to comment on two unique examples of how we do it. Research in some cutting-edge fields of science can be done on a tabletop or by a lone researcher with nothing more than a paper and pencil, but exploring certain frontiers of knowledge requires major facilities and large teams of researchers. Recently, I and others from my staff had the privilege of visiting two of the Nation’s extraordinary science facilities to learn more about their capabilities and discuss how they support the Administration’s science priorities and initiatives.

    We started our explorations at Fermilab, the leading facility for particle physics in the United States, where we toured the underground neutrino detectors, the accelerator component test facilities, and the remote-operations centers for experiments located on-site, at the major European physics center (CERN), and elsewhere. Physicists study the behavior of the elusive neutrinos by using very high-intensity accelerators to produce beams of them that are then smashed into carefully designed targets. I thought I was brave for daring to stand in the path of a neutrino beam…before I learned that the neutrinos rarely interact with other matter and are pretty much harmless.

    I expected that the detectors that let us “see” neutrinos would be small and delicate like the particles themselves, so I was amazed by the scale of the massive, sophisticated neutrino detector, which seemed like a gigantic hunk of iron to me. The photo below shows us next to the NOvA near detector, which is situated approximately 350 feet underground and weighs about 280 tons. But the scale of the equipment, while staggering, isn’t as awe-inspiring as the science itself, which tells us about fundamental particles of matter and the very essence of the universe. I look forward to touring the facilities for the next generation of neutrino experiments, which will require even bigger detectors placed even deeper underground, at a specific distance from the neutrino source.

    OSTP Associate Director for Science Jo Handelsman (far right) tours Fermilab, the leading facility for particle physics in the United States. (Photo credit: Fermilab)

    Our next stop was Argonne National Laboratory, whose scientists address synergistic issues in energy research across a broad spectrum of topical areas, with a focus on basic science, scientific facilities, energy resources, and environmental management. At Argonne, we toured the Center for Nanoscale Materials user facility; the Advanced Photon Source (APS) synchrotron; the Advanced Protein Characterization Facility; and Argonne’s Leadership Class computing facility, home to Mira, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. These facilities are open to the broad scientific community, enabling the best ideas from all over to be explored and tested. The APS is a huge, ring-shaped machine – more than a kilometer in circumference – that can produce intense X-ray beams that let us probe what is happening in materials at the tiniest levels – a few nanometers, the size of just a handful of atoms. It’s for that very reason that the nanoscience center and the protein characterization facility are directly adjacent and connected to the APS.

    Both Fermilab and Argonne are components of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratory system, part of the larger network of U.S. Federal laboratories and research facilities. These institutions are operated by a variety of agencies that support research, including the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and others. Together, they accelerate scientific discovery, technological development, innovation, and progress for our Nation.

    Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Improving Transparency and Ensuring Continued Safety in Biotechnology

    In 1986, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, which outlined a comprehensive Federal regulatory policy for ensuring the safety of biotechnology products. The Framework was updated in 1992.  While the current regulatory system for biotechnology products effectively protects health and the environment, advances in science and technology since 1992 have been altering the product landscape.  In addition, the complexity of the array of regulations and guidance documents developed by the three Federal agencies with jurisdiction over biotechnology products can make it difficult for the public to understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated, and navigating the regulatory process for these products can be unduly challenging, especially for small companies.

    These circumstances call for revisiting the Coordinated Framework once more.  Accordingly, today the White House is issuing a memorandum directing the three Federal agencies that have oversight responsibilities for these products—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA)— to update the Coordinated Framework, develop a long-term strategy to ensure that the system is prepared for the future products of biotechnology, and commission an expert analysis of the future landscape of biotechnology products to support this effort.

  • Seven Days of Making!

    Tom Kalil, Deputy Director of Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (first from left), and Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of OSTP (second from left), examine Open ROV, an open-source, underwater robot at the 2015 National Maker Faire. (Photo credit: Meredith Lee).

    This week, Americans of all ages and backgrounds celebrated a National Week of Making, which President Obama proclaimed for June 12-18. The week coincided with the one-year anniversary of the first-ever White House Maker Faire, when the President issued a call to action for individuals and organizations to “lift up makers and builders and doers across the country.” The Week was an opportunity for communities nationwide to highlight local examples of innovation and hands-on learning of STEM, arts, and design. Makers nationwide are using these skills to develop and scale up creative new products and solutions to solve local and global challenges.

    Read on to learn more about how the National Week of Making was celebrated here at the White House, in our Nation’s capital, and beyond.

  • We The Geeks: Made With Pride

    Last week, the White House celebrated a National Week of Making to honor those who lift up makers and builders across the country. This year, the Week of Making coincided with the White House’s celebrations of LGBT Pride Month.  

    To recognize the accomplishments of makers and LGBT people in tech, we’ll be hosting our latest episode of We The Geeks, featuring:

    • Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States
    • Alexis Lewis, a teen inventor and patent-holder
    • Leanne Pittsford, Founder of Lesbians Who Tech
    • Alex Surasky-Ysasi; Social Innovator & Engineer at Satellite Shelter

    Hear from these amazing innovators and join us for “We The Geeks: Made With Pride” on Wednesday, June 24 at 1:00 p.m. ET by joining us at

    Got questions? Ask them using the hashtag #WeTheGeeks on Twitter and on Google+ and we'll answer some of them during the live hangout.

  • Honoring Outstanding Mentors in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

    When I was in 10th grade, my biology teacher, Mr. Postiglione, gave me a newspaper clipping about breeding corn to increase its nutritional value as a staple food. Mr. P. knew that I wanted to study plants and instinctively recognized that I would be interested in the global application of plant genetics described in the article. Little did he know that I was so inspired by the article (which, by the way, was posted over my desk for more than a decade) that it initiated my lifelong passion for agriculture and determined my professional trajectory. Mr. P. was a mentor of the best kind – he thought about my interests, never imposing his own hopes on me. And at a time when others discouraged girls from pursuing science, Mr. P. showed his faith in me by thoughtfully, over his morning coffee and newspaper, finding just the right spark to ignite my imagination and impel me toward many goals throughout my scientific career, even today.

    So I know firsthand just how powerful the impact of mentoring can be for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). And I couldn’t be happier to work for a President who appreciates the importance of STEM mentoring as well.

    Yesterday, President Obama met with 14 scientists and engineers and the representatives of a STEM mentoring organization who exemplify what it means to be an effective STEM mentor. They are the latest winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), an award presented by the White House to individuals and organizations to recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students and young professionals in STEM – particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

    President Obama meets with PAESMEM awardees in the Oval Office on June 17, 2015. (Official White House photo)

  • Unleashing Climate Data and Tools to Empower America’s Transportation Sector

    Today, in a major step to advance the President’s Climate Data Initiative and the Climate Resilience Toolkit, the Obama Administration is providing data and tools that will help ensure our nation’s transportation systems are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

    In the United States, transportation systems are designed to withstand local weather and climate. Transportation engineers typically refer to historical records of climate, especially extreme weather events, when designing transportation systems. For example, bridges are often designed to withstand storms that have a probability of occurring only once or twice every 100 years.

    However, due to climate change, historical climate is no longer a reliable predictor of future impacts.

    The impacts of climate change – including more intense storms and storm surge damage, more severe droughts and heat waves, and sea-level rise – can increase the risk of delays, disruptions, damage, and failure across our land-based, air, and marine transportation systems. This is particularly important considering the interconnectivity of these systems. Actionable science, data, information, and tools can empower planners and decision makers to account for these impacts in the transportation sector, potentially helping avoid disruptions to operations and costly repairs, and helping ensure that major investments into infrastructure intended to last many decades is not put at risk prematurely.