The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has yet to hold its first meeting, and the White House hasn’t even announced its full 16-person roster. But one newly appointed member, Director of IBM Research Dario Gil in Yorktown Heights, New York, already has a wish list of issues he’d like it to tackle.
His list includes promoting scientific inquiry and its value to policymakers, ensuring that researchers have the computational tools they need in an era of big data, retraining the U.S. workforce to be more technically literate, and updating a partnership between the federal government, academia, and industry spelled out by Vannevar Bush at the end of World War II. Gil also thinks the government must strike the right balance between protecting national security and fostering international scientific collaboration with the rest of the world, using “a scalpel” instead of “a blanket policy” to monitor and prevent undue foreign influences on U.S. research.
“I am passionate about the need for continued investment in science,” says Gil, 43, who joined IBM immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 2003 and has been rising quickly through its management ranks. “I want to be an advocate of its critical importance.”
That full-throated endorsement of the U.S. research enterprise may hearten some scientists who feel President Donald Trump and his administration have been scornful of their contributions and the role of science in policymaking. Gil declined to characterize his political leanings and deflected a question about whether he agrees with that criticism.
Henry Smith, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Gil’s graduate adviser, thinks Trump has been “a disaster” for science—and that Gil shares those views. However, Smith says Gil also understands that tact is important in trying to influence government policy.
“I think that Dario will express his views as clearly and diplomatically as possible,” says Smith, who has remained in touch with Gil. “He knows that if he goes in and says something too radical, it would be ignored. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to stand up for what he believes.”
PCAST will be chaired by Kelvin Droegemeier, the president’s science adviser, who filled a 2-year vacancy when he became director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in January. Gil spoke with ScienceInsider shortly after the White House announced PCAST’s first cohort of seven scientists and industry leaders on 22 October. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What has kept you at IBM?
A: I’ve been having too much fun. When I graduated from [Smith’s] nanostructures laboratory, I joined a group that was a natural extension of what I had been doing, pushing the limits of nanofabrication. But then I got involved in modeling, and in high-performance computing, and in applying models more broadly across different industries. And then I became responsible for all the core scientific research at IBM in the physical sciences. Then I led the AI [artificial intelligence] organization, and then I got really involved in quantum computing.
Q: What are some key issues in applying quantum science to real-world problems?
A: People are fascinated by the word quantum; there’s something about the word itself and the underlying physics that fascinates people. Beyond that, they ask about the implications, and whether it will replace personal computing.
And I say, “No, it’s not. It’s bits, neurons, and qubits coming together.” It’s not about qubits replacing bits or taking over the world. So, let’s not think about one replacing the other.
As for what it is good for, it will have a profound effect on how we discover new materials and how material science is practiced. In agriculture it could lead to a new generation of fertilizers with a totally different energy consumption to create them, or better batteries. And it has profound implications for encryption and cybersecurity, and about U.S. economic competitiveness. There are also implications for the workforce, and what we need to do to train a new generation of scientists working in this environment.
Q: Are you worried that government policies to protect research in the name of national security could go too far and hamper progress and international collaboration?
A: I think that balance in that equation is indispensable. Science itself is very open endeavor, and it’s very important to maintain an open attitude toward how we do basic science.
Now, as we start adding the words technology and products, it is reasonable to discuss, for each technology, the right balance among capability, national security, openness, and so on. That is not new. We’ve been doing that as a country for many decades. And AI and quantum will be no different. We’re going to have to find that balance. And we need multiple voices to get that right.
Casting a broad brush to include everything does not make for sophisticated policy. So, I am in favor of being more nuanced, and more precise, in each area, and approaching it with a scalpel, not with a blanket policy.
Q: Does the government need to do more to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and math education and improve diversity? And what have you seen that works?
A: There are two categories that we need to pay more attention to. One is formal education, and the other is once people join the workforce.
If you look at formal education, there have been some trends that have been really disturbing. For example, if you look at the percentage of women studying computer science, we are worse off than we were 35 years ago. So that is really sad, and we have to be able to reverse that trend.
And then once you’ve done with formal education and you enter the workforce, there’s very little continuing education to cope with technological shifts. We need to pay more attention to the mechanism for invest in acquiring those new technological skills. How are we going to do it, and what are the incentives, and what is the role of the private sector and academia?