Science and Policy: Washington, DC., in the Obama era

Network News Spring 2009, Vol. 22 No. 1
NSF News

To say the presidential elections of 2008 were historic is an understatement. The election was significant for more than the obvious reasons, however. Science, rarely an issue in political campaigns, was an issue in the 2008 election cycle.

Arguably, science became a campaign issue because scientists grew weary of an expanding list of reports chronicling situations where politics trumped science. From climate change to environmental protection and species conservation to evolution education, the early years of the 21st century have been witness to tense times between science and politicians. Within this environment, a growing number of scientists came to realize that science does and must operate within a political system.

Leading into the 2008 elections, many scientific societies and individual scientists began to organize so that the scientific community could ask questions and demand answers of candidates for public office. Groups such as Scientists and Engineers for America reorganized following less than successful efforts in prior elections, and encouraged scientists to engage in the process. Working through scientific societies and other coalitions, scientists sought to know how the potential presidents would approach science if elected.

Because calls for an articulated science policy came from respected organizations such as the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and from rank and file scientists, the candidates responded. The eventual winner, Barack Obama, pledged to "return science to its rightful place." Happily for science supporters, this has translated thus far to a reversal of President Bush's prohibition on federal funding for stem cell research, pledges to support sustainable energy and agriculture research, new investments in science education, a goal of doubling federal funding for research and development, and a commitment to use science to inform policy decisions.

Even if individuals disagree with specific actions, most scientists should appreciate the attention that science has received in the first months of the Obama administration. Following his inauguration, President Obama quickly sought to name top scientists to key administration posts. Among these, Dr. John Holdren was tapped to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and serve as the President's science adviser, Dr. Steven Chu, a Noble Laureate, was picked to serve as Secretary of Energy, and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist, was selected to take the helm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These quick appointments were a few of the President's early actions on science. He also worked with Congressional leaders, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV), to ensure that science agencies were included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the economic stimulus package). Within this legislative package, the National Science Foundation received a $3 billion infusion of capital. Although some of this money is directed to science education and workforce programs, the majority will be applied to infrastructure projects and funding competitive grants received since the start of the fiscal year (October 1, 2008) that otherwise would not have been funded because of insufficient resources. Moreover, with the likely prodding of former Republican Senator Arlen Specter (PA)(who has since switched sides and is now a Democrat), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received an additional $10 billion in stimulus funds. Specter, a long-time champion for the NIH, was at the time one of three Republicans whose vote was required for Senate passage of the stimulus legislation.

The early days of the Obama administration have also included a Presidential Executive Order lifting restrictions on stem cell research, the White House has requested public comment on a draft Executive Order that would guide the application of science in the federal regulatory process, and Congress has granted the Departments of Interior and Commerce authority to expeditiously reverse Bush Administration environmental regulations.

In addition to these actions, the White House has pledged to work to respond to climate change. On April 17, 2009, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that "after a thorough scientific review ordered in 2007 by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed finding Friday that greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare." The proposed finding, which now undergoes a period of public comment, identified six greenhouse gases that pose a potential threat. This is the final step in the deliberative process that the EPA must follow prior to issuing a final finding. Before taking any steps to reduce greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, EPA would conduct an appropriate process and consider stakeholder input. Yet, despite this step, President Obama and EPA Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue and create the framework for a clean energy economy.

Meanwhile, Representatives Waxman (D-CA) and Markey (D-MA) released a 600-plus page draft bill to respond to climate change. The plan, released prior to the Easter Congressional recess, is expected to begin working its way through the House's committee process in April and May. Reports indicate that House Democratic leaders have set an aggressive schedule for climate change legislation, hoping to have the House consider legislation prior to Memorial Day. Many policy experts now think that the House will have to move climate change legislation forward to prompt action in the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee has moved slowly on the issue in the 111th Congress, and where it is expected that a separate bill dealing with energy policy will emerge from the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).

The new administration has not steered away from what have traditionally been controversial political issues. Addressing the National Science Teachers Association conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told gathered science teachers on March 20, 2009: "Science education is central to our broader effort to restore American leadership in education worldwide." He continued, "[President Obama] understands that a nation not only needs its poets and scholars to give us words and wisdom, but also its inventors and engineers to design new cell phones, rebuild the levees of New Orleans, and find new sources of energy and new treatments for disease. Moreover, he is a president who will not allow scientific research to be held hostage to a political agenda. Whether it's global warming, evolution, or stem cell research, science will be honored, respected, and supported by this administration." Duncan further challenged teachers to "move the curriculum beyond dinosaurs and volcanoes" and take the best ideas "to scale in tough inner-city districts as well as rural areas that cannot find qualified teachers in every subject." Duncan challenged teachers, stating that "together, we need to change the national dialogue about science, to prepare our kids to be both honestly critical and technically competent."

How much more energy is there for science? Only time will answer this question, but scientists should recognize that science enjoys a degree of favor in Washington, DC, at this time in history. It is now incumbent on members of the scientific community to stay, or become, engaged with their political leaders. It is when scientists become removed from the process that science becomes relegated to the sidelines and risks being manipulated for political gain.

Importantly, many scientific societies maintain a strong science public policy presence in Washington, DC. AIBS is one of these organizations. Through the Public Policy Office, AIBS works to bridge the communication gaps that arise between scientists and policymakers, and work to provide scientists with tools and resources to be effective advocates for science. Recently, AIBS launched a new online resource, the AIBS Legislative Action Center (visit for details). This unique tool allows scientists to quickly and effectively communicate with members of Congress and senior executive branch officials. In just a few seconds, you can visit this site and send a prepared letter to your member of Congress asking that he/she support federal investments in research, or thank your Representative or Senator for a specific vote. Spend a few minutes on the site and you can personalize a letter to further increase its impact. It is that easy-all you need to know is your zip code.

Robert Gropp is the Director of Public Policy, American Institute of Biological Sciences, 1444 I Street, NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC., 20005