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Science in the Obama era

Jae C. Hong / AP file
Barack Obama wears safety glasses as he tours the Chrysler Stamping
Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., during the presidential primary campaign.

The economy and foreign policy may be higher on President-elect Barack Obama's to-do list, but science and technology issues are on the radar screen as well. Among the top tasks: taking the ideology out of scientific issues, and doing more about what Obama has called a "planet in peril."

The Illinois senator included the "planet in peril" reference in his post-election speech on the challenges that will be "the greatest of our lifetime." That implies that global climate change ranks right up there with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Climate change and energy
As I wrote last month, Obama's plan for dealing with the climate challenge includes a cap-and-trade system to provide financial incentives for cutting carbon emissions. The long-range goal would be to get an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. By that time, Obama would be 89 years old and well into senior-statesman mode, if he's still around. The trick will be to make a credible start toward that target during his administration, in the midst of massive economic problems.

Energy policy is joined at the hip with climate concerns: Obama has proposed spending $150 billion over the next 10 years to develop alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and biofuels. Nuclear power and expanded offshore oil drilling are also factors in Obama's energy equation - but not as much as they would have been if John McCain had won instead.

Stem cells
On the biomedical front, change is most likely to come first in embryonic stem-cell research. Obama has made clear that he would open the door wider for federal support of embryonic studies - and his victory came as music to the ears of stem cell researchers like Clayton Smith, who moved from the United States to Canada five years ago.

The Vancouver Sun quoted Smith as telling attendees at a stem cell conference that he was "literally in tears" over Obama's election, "and I may even choke up even talking about it."

"Watching the election last night was a singular event, like watching the Berlin Wall fall," said Smith, who now heads a lab at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Terry Fox Laboratory.

No more war on science
The most immediate policy change will be to put far more emphasis on scientific integrity in the White House, and far less emphasis on political ideology. Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," declared that the war has ended, and science has won.

Newsweek's Sharon Begley also hailed the end of the Bush administration's "poisonous science policies" - which reached their low point two years ago when NASA felt the heat not only over climate claims but over big-bang theory as well.

A month ago, Obama sent a letter to the leaders of the National Academies vowing that he would take scientific integrity seriously, even if the verdict runs counter to his own views. He said he'd issue an executive order "establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of publicly sponsored research, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and are not distorted by ideological biases."

"In addition, I will also strengthen protections for 'whistleblowers' who report on any government attempts to distort or ignore scientific research," he wrote. "And I will establish clear guidelines for selecting and vetting members of science and technology advisory committees for the White House and government agencies on the basis of merit."

Getting good advice
Obama has also vowed to raise the status of the White House science adviser by making him or her a cabinet-level assistant to the president as well as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The last science adviser to have that status was Neal Lane, who served as science adviser in the final years of the Clinton administration. (President Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, is director of the OSTP but not an assistant to the president.)

Lane told me today that the sooner a new science adviser is named, the better.

"The early appointment of an adviser on science and technology is an extremely important thing to do," he said, "because science and technology tie in so much to other issues, and many of the other presidential appointments will benefit from having the advice of the science adviser."

Based on the kinds of responses I'm getting to my phone calls, it sounds as if some of the Obama campaign's science advisers are already in transition mode. No one is talking. However, Nobel-winning cancer researcher Harold Varmus would have to be on the list of prospects for the top science job, by virtue of the fact that he's heading the campaign's scientific advisory group.

Other campaign advisers with previous experience in the White House and in the scientific community include:

  • Henry Kelly, who was an assistant director for technology in the Clinton administration and is now president of the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Gilbert Omenn, a physician and professor at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Omenn served in the OSTP under President Carter.
  • Tom Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California at Berkeley. Kalil was President Clinton's deputy assistant for technology and economic policy, and served as Hillary Clinton's stand-in at a surrogate science debate during the primary campaign.

Tech talk
Obama also intends to appoint a chief technology officer for the White House, and the rumor mill has produced some high-profile names to chew on, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Google executive Vinton ("Father of the Internet") Cerf, Princeton Professor Ed Felten and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC Universal joint venture).

It's worth noting that Schmidt is among the economic advisers due to attend a news conference with Obama on Friday, according to The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire. Wired.com highlights another tech-industry veteran on Obama's transition team: Julius Genachowski, co-founder of Rock Creek Ventures. Meanwhile, venture-capital whiz John Doerr has nominated Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy to be chief technology officer.

The Obama administration's leading tech issue will be to expand broadband Internet access to underserved communities, in part by providing tax incentives and reforming the Universal Service Fund that promotes telephone access. In a Q&A with CNET News, Obama argued that full broadband penetration "can enrich democratic discourse, enhance competition, provide economic growth and bring significant consumer benefits."

"Moreover, improving our infrastructure will foster competitive markets for Internet access and services that ride on that infrastructure," Obama said. "Market forces will drive the deployment of broadband in many parts of the country, but not all."

Obama also has voiced strong support for network neutrality - the idea that broadband carriers shouldn't engage in discriminatory practices with respect to content providers. Net neutrality legislation is currently stuck in congressional limbo, despite some unorthodox efforts to attract attention to the issue.

More science spending
Obama has vowed to put research spending in the physical and life sciences, math and engineering on track for a doubling in 10 years' time.

"We will increase research grants for early-career researchres to keep young scientists entering these fields," Obama said in his response to ScienceDebate 2008's questionnaire. "We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs."

Is this an area where Obama will have to pull back due to the financial crisis? Lane hopes not. He expects Obama and his aides to argue that investment in research will help create the wave of innovation necessary to put America back on top.

"If we're going to get any money for research, that argument is going to have to be made," Lane told me.

Rebuilding America's infrastructure may well be a key element in the Obama administration's economic recovery plan, and that could bring welcome news for scientists and engineers.

"Investments in infrastructure seem like a very good idea, and that could mean physical infrastructure. But it could also mean human infrastructure, scientific and technological infrastructure," Lane said. "You'd like someone in the White House who's thinking through all this, and a science adviser could be very helpful if he or she were on tap - even between now and Inauguration Day."

... And finally, the final frontier
I talked about NASA and space policy earlier this week, but there are a couple of new developments to ponder. First of all, the Government Accountability Office has just issued a list of 13 urgent issues for the new president and Congress to tackle, and retiring the space shuttle fleet is on the list.

Then there's today's report from National Review Online that Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., could be a prospect for transportation secretary in the Obama administration. It's unlikely that the conservative National Review is all that plugged into what the Democrats are up to. Nevertheless, the idea that Oberstar might play a role in commercial space transportation has sparked concern on the part of New Space proponents such as Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg and Clark Lindsey over at RLV and Space Transport News.

After all, it was Oberstar who raised objections to legislation opening the way for suborbital spaceflight experiments, claiming that giving private ventures too much freedom would lead to a "tombstone mentality." Commercial spaceflight will be entering a crucial period during the Obama administration, with the first passenger flights expected in the 2010-2012 time frame. What's more, regulations for the infant industry could conceivably be rewritten in four years' time, as we discussed last month

Charles Lurio, writer/publisher of The Lurio Report, told me that putting Oberstar in charge of the Transportation Department "could raise a big question mark for the future existence of the entire private/commercial spaceflight industry."

It's not clear how much truth there is to the rumor, but for many in the New Space field, appointing Oberstar to that particular post would be a change they don't need. Lurio is hoping New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will keep Obama up to date on the New Space point of view, as he promised to do.

Update for 8:44 p.m. ET: I e-mailed an inquiry to Obama's team, asking for "any information you can provide about how the transition team intends to move forward on science and technology issues (or advisers)." Spokesman Dan Pfeiffer sent a quick note back: "We will have more to say on this at some point soon."

For more about the road ahead for science and technology policy, check out this speculation about appointing a "climate czar" and this discussion of the science adviser's role. Policy analyst David Goldston presents his perspective on the road ahead in the journal Nature. You can learn more about Obama's agenda at Change.gov, the Web site for the "Office of the President-Elect." And for the definitive word on sci-tech issues, click on over to the Scientists & Engineers for America Action Fund as well as ScienceDebate 2008.