The president and the newly inaugurated 113th Congress are about to face a number of science- and technology-related decisions that will determine the country's trajectory. We urge dramatic action on the science policy issues that matter most:
Ensure a Clean, Secure Energy Supply
U.S. Energy Policy must be guided by two intertwined goals: guaranteeing the security of the nation's energy supply and limiting runaway climate change. A tax on the carbon dioxide emissions of fuels is key to achieving both. A firm carbon price would encourage individuals and businesses to shift away from carbon-heavy fuels such as petroleum and coal. It would also encourage the development of next-generation energy sources that we will need if we are to secure the country's energy supply for the coming decades. The president and Congress must also end the market-distorting subsidies given out like Halloween candy to industries across the energy spectrum—from coal and oil to wind and solar. Without a level playing field and a steady price on carbon, companies cannot assess whether advanced technologies such as “clean coal” power plants or electric vehicles will ever make economic sense.
Protect Free Speech Online
In the 21st Century the Internet has become our public square and printing press—a place where citizens have their voices heard. That freedom to speak must be protected. Network neutrality—the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated equally regardless of creator or content—is often considered to be a technical business matter. At its core, however, net neutrality guarantees the right to speak freely on the Internet without fear of gatekeepers who would block content with which they disagree. The Federal Communications Commission must enforce policies that would protect free speech on the Internet. The most powerful method at the commission's disposal is to reverse policies enacted a decade ago by the FCC and reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service. Just as the telephone companies cannot now referee your phone conversations, the owners of broadband Internet lines should not be allowed to interfere with what online content citizens have access to.
Make Health Care Smarter
The 2010 Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was never supposed to be the last word in health care reform. The president and Congress must reach at least three additional objectives for the U.S. to rehabilitate its alarmingly dysfunctional health care system: 1) figure out a way to lower medical costs, which threaten to bankrupt the country if they continue spiraling upward; 2) improve the health outcomes of its patients; and 3) make health care affordable for businesses and individuals.
These are massive challenges that demand systemic changes to our health care system. But as a start, we might begin with small steps such as rewarding primary care physicians and nurse practitioners with financial bonuses if they keep their patients healthy and out of the hospital. And we should target individuals who have asthma, heart disease or diabetes for more attentive care, given that complications from these conditions can be very expensive to treat but are often preventable.
Other science- and technology-related policy issues will arise in the next four years. Congress will soon renew a comprehensive “farm bill.” Because the bill also serves as the nation's de facto food and nutrition policy, Congress should craft the bill to support a healthy nation, not just agribusiness. Both presidential campaigns wisely acknowledged the need to award more immigrant visas to the highly skilled workers required by high-tech industries. And we must continue to overhaul our science, technology, mathematics and engineering education strategies to ensure that the U.S. will be supplying the world with highly skilled workers in the coming decades, not the other way around. The future of the nation depends on it.[break]
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
Comment on this article at ScientificAmerican.com/jan2013