Barack Obama has proven to be an impresario at selling new policies — and at selling himself as the best man to implement them. On the stump a year ago he promised a no-nonsense, let’s-fix-this approach to the nation’s mounting social and economic ills. His campaign pledges ranged from making health care insurance universally affordable to fixing schools to assuring that tax credits supporting industrial research and development wouldn’t expire.
And, particularly encouraging to scientists, Obama pledged that research agencies would receive better funding based on smarter criteria. Climate protection would be a priority. So would new national strategies aimed at conserving energy and other natural resources.
Science would not be muzzled in the pursuit of economic agendas or environmental deregulation; it would be embraced as the foundation for federal policies. Wasteful, duplicative and pure-pork programs would be eliminated. New policies would reverse the trend of outsourcing industrial jobs overseas.
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And Obama promised that virtually all federal activities would become transparent to taxpayers. Key to that transparency would be digital records of events, transactions, proposals, e-mails and meetings.
Now that most voters have bought Obama’s pitch, the big question remains: Can he deliver?
The research community appears optimistic that the new president will follow through with as much as Congress allows. Many experts say they are impressed with the cadre of politically astute science and biomedical advisers that President Obama has already mustered to work for his White House and with Congress.
No surprise to anyone, “The real problem is going to be the economy,” observes physicist Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate and former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
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Federal funding for science has been eroding over the past eight years, Lederman says. Meanwhile, the nation is in a recession, continues to direct huge sums of money into overseas wars and the importation of oil, faces an expected $1.2 trillion budget deficit this year, and strains under a national debt exceeding $10.6 trillion.
Against that backdrop, Lederman believes that reversing federal funding trends in science and engineering will prove a challenge. However, he adds, based on conversations with his former senator, Obama, “I’m convinced that he has an unusual grasp of science. Not that he can write down a differential equation. But Obama understands science in a deep way and reveals it by commenting on the beauty of new discoveries.
“To me, he deserves three checks for clearly understanding the power of science.”
And that, Lederman argues, is why Obama’s inauguration brought him a genuine sense of hope: “It feels like the marines are arriving — and just in time, hopefully.”
Health | A shot in the arm
The first wave of those marines has been dropping from the skies in what have been termed “parachute teams.” Beginning immediately after election day, the Obama transition advisers dispatched small groups to study federal agencies — through interviews with staff and talks with outsiders who monitor federal activities. The goal: to investigate not only what Uncle Sam has been charged with doing but also what major obstacles exist to carrying out those charges.
Some parachutists dropped in on Mary Woolley and her colleagues at Research!America. Woolley’s team, based in Alexandria, Va., has been documenting declining federal investment in biomedical and health research, and the impacts of that decline. She offered Obama’s team the following assessment of the big picture:
With an estimated one-in-six Americans lacking health insurance, a key campaign issue in 2008 was how to help people qualify for affordable insurance even if they’d lost their jobs.
Medical costs have continued to spiral upward while nearly every other economic indicator has fallen. Crucial to reining in costs will be smarter use of health resources — be they physician access, medicines, diagnostic procedures or patient data, Woolley explains. The health care industry would work more efficiently now if it knew how to, she contends.
“You don’t know what constitutes misspent money until you do research to investigate that — what’s called health-services and comparative-effectiveness research.”
Woolley describes most medical practice today as “anecdotal” — a process best exemplified by the trial-and-error diagnostic and therapeutic approaches embodied each week on the TV drama House. Its fictional physicians analyze a battery of diagnostic test results and then prescribe some therapy. If it doesn’t work, they try another. Still no luck? More tests and a new round of alternative therapies until some treatment actually controls the patient’s particular condition.
Effects of most treatments differ depending on a patient’s age, gender, genetics, coexisting conditions and even social habits. Comparative-effectiveness research attempts to acquire therapeutic data on broad cross sections of the population — employing health information technology, or IT — and then sifts through these data to evaluate when or where a treatment performed best. A few health care systems, like Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic, have exploited health IT for these types of analyses, Woolley says, “but it’s not done, far and away, for most patients in this country.”
Obama’s plans for a major push in health IT have the potential to facilitate such studies in the future. He has pledged to make investments that would ensure that “within five years all of America’s medical records are computerized.” The priority shows up in the economic stimulus package that the president signed into law February 17.
Energy | Powering alternatives
Jason S. Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, based in Washington, D.C., served as energy and climate adviser for Obama’s presidential campaign. What motivated him to sign on, he says, was his faith in the candidate’s commitment to changing how the nation powers itself.
“Every president since Richard Nixon has aspired to energy independence in one form or another. And we’ve been yammering at each other as a nation for 10 years about global climate change while the votes [in Congress to do something about it] have basically stayed essentially locked.” To Grumet, the question was “not only who gets in [as president], but, in fact, who can get it done,” he says. Obama pledged to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, but also recognized, Grumet says, that meeting this commitment while also facing the energy challenge is “not like any problem that we’ve faced before.”
Last year at a meeting with environmental reporters, Grumet recalled how he had lobbied members of Congress on cutting dependence on foreign oil. His goal: new federal policies that would force Detroit to build more efficient cars. Yet every time Grumet pointed out that it would take a decade to retool manufacturers and then get enough fuel-efficient cars on the road to make a big difference, the lawmakers would suddenly yawn. “And they’d look at their watch. And they’d thank me for my great work.”
He made the same pitch to Obama and his staff. One look at the numbers on oil imports and transportation’s role in climate, Grumet says, and the senator volunteered: “We’ve got to do something about cars.” When Grumet pointed out the decade lag time in seeing a benefit from federal action, Obama told him: “Well then, we better get started now.”
A few months later Obama met with U.S. automakers and members of the United Auto Workers for what Grumet described as “a tough love” talk. Obama informed Detroit that he would begin pushing his congressional colleagues for significantly strengthened mileage standards.
It was the same message that Obama sent voters last year when he vowed to eliminate oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years, get a million super-efficient plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 and ensure that 10 percent of the nation’s energy comes from alternative fuels by 2025.
Obama reiterated those themes in January in his stimulus package outline as he pledged again to quickly “spark the creation of a clean energy economy” with big investments in alternative energy, programs to weatherize homes and federal buildings and initiatives that put Americans to work constructing fuel-efficient cars.
Obama selected a strong ally to champion these programs in Steven Chu, who is now the Secretary of Energy. As director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Chu had already been stumping for those same issues.
Chu has been campaigning for the equivalent of an Apollo program for energy (SN: 10/25/08, p. 32). He envisions a huge, federal investment to develop new technologies to pare energy use in especially energy-hungry sectors of the economy.
Although “it’s kind of dumb,” Chu notes, “most people won’t invest in energy efficiency unless it pays for itself in one or two years.” In fact, for buildings with an expected 50-year life span, for example, “a 10- to 15-year payoff should be reasonable” for investments in energy efficiency, Chu says. Until industry and the public accept that, he says, Uncle Sam — in the guise of the agency Chu now leads — may have to step in and promote research aimed at achieving big and clever energy savings.
Climate | Sea change
As part of the “Apollo program,” Chu would like to see a major new thrust on technologies that can affordably sequester the carbon emitted by the world’s most abundant fossil fuel, coal.
At his confirmation hearing on January 13, Chu was asked to put in context a quote attributed to him about coal use being the nominee’s “worst nightmare.” Chu said that he meant, “If the world continues to use coal the way we’re using it today — and by the world I mean not only the United States, but China, India and Russia — then it is a pretty bad dream.” Together, he points out, these four nations account for two-thirds of the world’s known coal reserves — a cheap energy source difficult to ignore. And even if the United States abandons coal burning, India and China will not, he believes. Power plants in those nations also tend to be far dirtier than their U.S. counterparts.
That’s why “it’s imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible,” Chu argues. And he’s optimistic that “we will develop those technologies to capture a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that is emitted by coal plants and to safely sequester it” (SN: 5/10/08, p. 19). Because he was coached for the hearing by Obama’s transition team, Chu’s comments reflect the goals of the new administration.
Which is good, notes R.K. Pachauri, director-general of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India, and chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In contrast to the economy, which is the world’s leading short-term crisis, climate change is the looming mid- to long-range one. And the world may have only seven to 10 years to avert major perturbations in long-term climate, Pachauri says. Obama’s pronouncements on climate show this president is thinking seriously about acting quickly to curb the use of climate-damaging energy technologies.
And not a moment too soon, adds Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider.
People have argued that the Bush administration was in denial about the looming impacts of unrestrained carbon dioxide emissions. “But it wasn’t denial,” Schneider contends. “They didn’t not believe it.” He charges that evidence indicating climate change — and the role of human activities in it — was simply ignored “because it was inconvenient for Bush campaign contributors, like oil company CEOs.”
With Obama’s administration, Schneider says, “it’s now virtually certain we’ll have a [national] climate policy. The only question is: Too little, too late?”
Estimates on the costs of setting U.S. energy policy on a more climate-friendly trajectory hover around $1 trillion to be spent over a decade, he says. That amount is high, he concedes, but no more than the cost of 300 days in the Iraq War.
The Bush administration’s response to energy needs was “drill, baby, drill” — be it for oil or coal. In the new financial climate, Obama’s economic team is undoubtedly lobbying him to restrain “costs, baby, costs,” Schneider says.
But Obama seems to have focused on a more visionary goal — energy-sparing technologies, says Schneider, adding that the president has selected a very articulate spokesman in Chu. This new energy secretary will offer a strong voice in the Cabinet for “sustainability, baby, sustainability,” Schneider suspects.
Obama’s selection of former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner as White House coordinator of energy and climate policy further propels Schneider’s optimism that substantial U.S. action on climate is pending. Browner, Schneider says, is a get-it-done person and is “a great balance to Chu, who’s an idea guy.”
What that pairing offers, he believes, is the opportunity for “open — probably pretty contentious — debate inside the closed doors of the Cabinet.” In fact, Browner’s special assignment as energy/ climate czar should “elevate these issues above where they’d have been by just letting Cabinet secretaries manage them,” argues Schneider. That’s why the nominations of Chu and Browner gave him “much more hope than I’d had before that [Obama] will be able to pull off substantial climate policy.”
It will then be up to Congress to implement that policy. Unfortunately, Schneider worries, it may take “a super-typhoon souped up by global warming that devastates a mega-delta city of 10 million in China” to catalyze action, or another heat wave like the one that killed 50,000 people in Europe six years ago. “I really wish we didn’t need to be kicked in the teeth — if not lower — before we acted.”
Research | The other infrastructure
News accounts describing the nation’s eroding infrastructure point to water main breaks, cracked and rusting bridges and aging power plants. Although less visible, the nation’s research infrastructure is also fraying.
A January 7 report by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, or ITIF, argues that the nation’s digital infrastructure — computers, broadband networks, health IT and the electrical grid — deserves a major overhaul. An investment here “delivers more jobs and makes America more competitive than spurring consumer spending or even investing in traditional physical infrastructure,” says Rob Atkinson, ITIF’s president. His group made a good case. The stimulus package now contains more than $41 billion for digital infrastructure. ITIF anticipates stimulus spending in this area will, through 2016, ultimately create 1.1 million person-years of new employment.
Research labs also warrant refurbishing. Atkinson and his colleagues proposed devoting $2 billion of the stimulus money for one-time research infrastructure grants. This program should not only support jobs in the companies that make research equipment, Atkinson points out, but also “leave us with something tangible to serve our nation’s next generation of researchers.” The stimulus package contains about $1.26 billion for research facilities and equipment, says ITIF’s Daniel Castro.
To encourage private concerns to invest more in infrastructure and research, ITIF also proposed a new system of tax credits. Currently, a company receives no tax credit for spending on R&D until the amount exceeds 50 percent of the company’s average R&D expenditure in the previous three years. Then the credit kicks in, and at a rate of only 14 percent. ITIF would increase the credit to 20 percent.
The group also proposes a “40 percent flat credit on all research and development expenditures made in collaboration with a university, federal laboratory or research consortium.” This proposal stems from the finding of a recent ITIF study showing that although innovations now stem largely from collaborative projects, private companies have been cutting back on such early stage cooperative programs.
To date, Obama has endorsed the idea of making existing tax credits for R&D investments permanent. “And that’s nice,” Atkinson says. “But at the end of the day, that’s not going to do the job. The point should not be permanency but expansion [of tax credits].”
ITIF also recommends openly acknowledging the importance of technology and innovation to American competitiveness and creating a standing federal agency — one akin to the National Science Foundation — tasked with promoting the development and commercialization of new technologies (see “A proposed NSF for innovation,” Science & the Public, SN Online: 4/29/08). He hopes such a focus might also spur investments in unusual, high-risk — but also potentially high-payoff — projects, such as those supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
As a member of two Obama transition teams, Atkinson says he has briefed the president’s advisers.
Basic science research could also use a strong funding boost. But Atkinson is dubious: “The science community has not been very aggressive in pushing for its needs.” Other interest groups are better at promotion, he says. But to stimulate the economy, “in the short run, funding in science would be just as good as in any other area, and in the long term, it would have a better economic impact,” Atkinson says.
Lederman seconds that. “I think the public would come on board and support greater funding for research if they understood the situation” — that R&D funding, which drives innovation and the economy, has been languishing. He faults the scientific community, in part, “for not speaking up for science more in Washington.”
Still, reasons for optimism are emerging. As noted by the Washington, D.C.–based American Association for the Advancement of Science, the stimulus package includes $21.5 billion for research and non-digital infrastructure, a total that well exceeds amounts initially recommended by the House ($13.2 billion) and Senate ($17.8 billion).
OBAMA’S SCIENCE CADRE Last December, then President-elect Obama explained his attitude toward science. It’s to see “that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.” Promoting science is “about listening to what our scientists have to say,” he added, “even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States, and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.”
Physicist, Nobel laureate
Secretary of Energy
During early January, Chu zipped through his Senate confirmation hearing for the energy secretary post. The day after Obama was inaugurated, Chu — the former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — joined the presidential Cabinet, becoming the first Nobel laureate ever to do so.
President’s science adviser
Holdren will head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, Holdren is also director of science, technology and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where his research has focused on energy and climate. He is past president and board chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Another former AAAS president joins Obama’s inner circle: The Oregon State University marine scientist will head the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lubchenco’s research, among the most cited in ecology, has focused on factors regulating marine communities, biodiversity and global change. She received a MacArthur award in 1993.
Biologist, Nobel laureate
Varmus is renowned in the biomedical arena and will cochair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. As director of the National Institutes of Health for six years, he is credited with nearly doubling that agency’s budget. Most recently, he has been head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Lander founded the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research in 1990. It’s now part of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, which Lander runs. This institute marries genomic science and chemical biology. Among his many honors, Lander won a MacArthur award in 1987.