Cautious Optimism for Obama's Policy on Science

Professionals hope the new president can change the culture of science in the White House.
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Professionals hope the new president can change the culture of science in the White House.

The second of two stories looking at the scientific legacy of the current U.S. presidential administration and contrasting it with the expected direction of the incoming regime. To see the first story, on the travails of science under the George W. Bush administration, click here.

Whoever advises Barack Obama in the next administration will have to differentiate between science for policy and policy for science.

It’s not just wordplay: The former captures how the resources of science can affect issues like energy, health care and the environment. The latter refers to making policy in support of science by providing, for example, funding for research and development.

“One thing a science adviser has got to be very, very careful about is putting the emphasis on science for policy,” said Bill Blanpied, a retired government scientist and expert on presidential science history. President Richard Nixon, he pointed out, eliminated the Office of Science and Technology Policy because it came to be viewed as a special lobby for science within the White House (and, well, farmers don’t get their own special lobby either).

“You don’t want the science adviser perceived as someone who is simply saying, ‘We need more money.’ On the other hand, the expectation of a lot of scientists is that’s exactly what the science adviser should be doing. It’s tricky.”

Many of the scientific troubles Obama inherits in the federal government aren’t about money. They strike at deeper questions of scientific integrity and the process government uses to include science in policymaking.

Advocates are eager to point out during the transition the myriad steps Obama could take to bolster government science without adding to the deficit, and they always start with the science adviser — or, rather, the cabinet-level position they hope Obama will reinstate, that of assistant to the president for science and technology.

That person sits at the nexus of a process critics say has become convoluted under the Bush administration: What should come first — the policy decisions or the science that supports it?

Critical Upgrade Needed in D.C.
Bush’s adviser, John Marburger, has often been in the position of defending policy decisions with science that much of the scientific community doesn’t agree with. But any science adviser must apply the resources of science to the policy issues the president has made a priority (a subtle but crucial difference from applying selective science to justify policy decisions already made).

A report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars endorsed a "critical upgrade” for both the adviser job and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which the adviser directs (it did not, however, advocate Obama’s one-time campaign proposal of creating a separate technology adviser).

Appointing someone before the inauguration — and to an elevated position — in keeping with the rest of the cabinet announcements would be key to setting the tone and staffing the rest of the government with suitable science and technology experts, the report concluded.

“We felt it was important to have that title both because it’s symbolic to others even within the White House complex that (science) is valued as a key area,” said Jennifer Bond, one of the report’s authors and a former senior analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the administration of George H.W. Bush. “Then it’s important in terms of being at the right meetings, being at cabinet-level meetings where people don’t always recognize the important science factors within major issues.”

Beginning with the position of adviser to the president, Obama has the chance to change the very culture of how science is viewed within the government.

“A lot of these changes we’re looking for — making agencies more transparent, ushering in more leadership at the top, allowing science to have a seat at the table — these are all reforms that don’t cost a penny,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists Michael Halpern.

His group has identified several other freebies — requiring neither congressional action nor deep funding — that could change the tone in Obama’s first few months. Obama is expected to swiftly reverse Bush’s executive order on stem cell research, although Joanne Carney at the American Association for the Advancement of Science cautions that this won’t mean an “anything-goes” policy toward using human embryos. She expects the new administration to still maintain strict ethical guidelines and to convene its own commission on bioethics (it will likely look much different from Bush’s commission, with its heavy representation of thinkers from the religious right).

Halpern also hopes Obama will reverse an arcane executive order that gave the White House’s Office of Management and Budget a greater role in the regulatory process at government agencies like the EPA and the FDA. The order, Halpern said, allows the OMB to interfere with the scientific research behind eventual regulations the White House doesn’t support, giving opponents in industry, for example, the chance to challenge not just the regulation itself but the science behind it.

In a related concern, some scientific organizations are also urging Obama with the help of Congress to push through a bill with specific whistleblower protections for government scientists who speak out about the misuse of their work. Such a bill passed the House in 2007 but has languished since then in negotiations between the House and the Senate.

Many of these same proposals appeared among Obama’s own policy papers during the election, fueling the expectation that he is about to bring a sweeping new attitude to government science.

But Some Changes Will Cost Lots
All of these smaller changes in culture aside, Obama takes office vowing to stand up for science and technology on two much more costly — and therefore complicated — fronts: developing alternative energy and countering global climate change.

Obama represents a change from Bush on both topics simply by having articulated dramatically different positions. While Bush continued to play up a “fundamental debate” in the scientific community over the man-made causes of global warming, Obama has categorically accepted the scientific consensus that man-made emissions are likely causing climate change.

“There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively,” Obama said in response to a question from Science Debate 2008. “First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions.”

He has specifically called for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Before the latest Wall Street collapse this fall, he had also proposed doubling — over the next 10 years — the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Chris Mooney, one of the creators of Science Debate 2008, expects that Obama will still be able to advance some of this science policy despite the economic downturn.

“Obama’s a good enough politician that this can be handled in an excellent fashion,” Mooney said. “I expect he’s going to push for the one big science policy that is central to his agenda, which is energy, and he’s going to push for it as a job-creating measure. He’s going to push for it as good of the economy.”

Bond concedes that many scientists understand that their causes seem like discretionary spending, “but we really think — and it really is bipartisan,” she said, “that what science and technology can contribute is important to all of these issues that face us.”

Framing science and technology policy as part of the economic solution — and not just another drag on the deficit — will be essential for Obama.

Scientists and environmentalists may also be losing a roadblock to addressing climate change with the departure of Bush. “But we also realize that the interests that don’t want significant action on global warming are still there,” Halpern said.

And so he expects the Union of Concerned Scientists and others to keep up the pressure even on a sympathetic president.

A Different Kind of Environmental Challenge
Obama inherits one other pressing scientific issue after the last eight years: the nagging question of whether or not America is now falling behind the world it has long led in scientific and technological innovation.

Bush administration policies have stalled, for example, any response to climate change, but have they also stopped in time America’s methodic march one step ahead of Europe or rapidly developing nations like China?

“If you let this run a little bit longer, there wouldn’t be any me to be asking the question,” said physicist John Hall, who was among the Nobel Prize winners who endorsed Obama this year.

In the direction we’ve been heading, he means, America may not produce Nobel Prize winners at the same rate in the future.

“Another way to think about it,” he said, “is what about all of the young people younger than me? How well prepared are they to take up the role as teachers and scientists? And the answer is, ‘Not well.’ We have this really approaching disaster when these kids come through.”

That sentiment — although not always expressed in such grave terms — has underscored much of the scientific call to arms this year. We may still be the leader, Mooney said, “but the question is, Are we slipping while others are surging?”

Obama cited several statistics himself in response to a similar Science Debate question: Thirty years ago, America ranked third among developed nations in the proportion of college students earning degrees in science and engineering; now it ranks 17th. And today the U.S. imports $53 billion more in advanced technology products each year than it exports, while China has become the world’s leader on that front.

Today’s debate in Washington over whether or not to bail out an American auto industry that willingly ceded fuel-efficient technology innovation to Japan is another prime example.

Fewer foreign students, too, study here today (or stay and work here as professionals) both because visa restrictions grew tighter after Sept. 11 and because advanced graduate programs now exist in their own countries. Obama has said he wants to reform immigration policy so that America doesn’t send a message to international students, scientists and engineers “that they are not welcome to the United States.”

He may have a harder time, though, with his plans to jumpstart STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education at the K-12 levels in a country where the president has the power to direct a space program but not (unlike many of America’s competitors) a local school’s curriculum.

Hall at least believes that there is a direct link between the value placed in the White House on science and the culture that trickles down to the elementary-school students he has been trying to inspire in Colorado since he won the Nobel Prize in 2005.

I don’t suppose that 25 percent of us need to be doing science, but what I’d really like to see is little kids in the third grade vibrating with joy, playing with magnets, getting the magnifying lens with a bug and realizing the sun can cook that bug,” Hall said. “I don’t need every one of them. I just need some.”