When President Obama was elected, he made campaign promises regarding dedication to furthering scientific projects. Nature magazine has conducted a review of accomplishments and those promises still unfulfilled and published the findings in its September issue.
The first four years the president has faced difficult political realities and crises such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. His pledge while running for office was to make science “a guiding tenant of his leadership.”
In the beginning of his term, he appointed Nobel laureate “science dream team.” Throughout his election campaign, Obama repeatedly promised to usher in a “new era” of innovation and restore America’s scientific and technological standing in the world.as secretary of the Energy Department, making it clear that he would lead the country off its addiction to climate-warming fossil fuels. “His appointment should send a signal to all, that my administration will value science,” Obama said. Following Chu’s appointment came the announcement of a
Giving a nod to Al Gore’s book “Inconvenient Truth,” the president declared when making the initial appointments: “The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.”
The nation held its breath at the possibility of advancing science after the Bush years of stifling climate research with claims of manipulation of statistical data. But it was not long before the realities of an economic crisis gripped the nation and passing climate legislation received little attention. Then the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cast doubt on the “dream team” as many felt their response was inadequate. Budget wars with Congress for NASA and the NIH fell short and precluded support from some science agencies. Pessimism set in, and the science community questioned whether this administration was dedicated to keeping his promises. In this instance, the beaker is half empty.
There is good news, though, and despite a recalcitrant Congress and the slow recovery of the economy, some advances have been made. The beaker begins to look half full with investments in science education and research, particularly when energy promises are fulfilled. The first greenhouse-gas regulations were introduced by the science team through the “integrity test.” The test was described in a 2009 statement promising “political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.” For U.S. researchers, the agreement came as a welcome change from the administration of, which had frequently been accused of infringing on science.
The integrity test provided a safe environment for scientists by shielding them from political interference. “The president never let up in his consistent support for science, and actually he got a lot done in spite of the Republican resistance,” Neal Lane, who was science adviser to former President Nature article., and is now a professor at Rice University in Houston, says in the
In addition, Nature reports that watchdog groups who make it their business to track the administration say the Obama administration has generally kept its promises—with some exceptions. There is less political interference with government scientists, and they are free to speak publicly without fear of retribution or interference. “Agencies change slowly, but if they can change slowly into this culture of transparency, then we can win,” says Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has spent time working with staff at federal agencies to develop integrity policies.
Stimulus funding for science
The first stimulus bill in February 2009 for $787 billion dollars contained $53 billion for science, fulfilling Obama’s promise to advance basic and applied research and development to address major issues including clean energy and global warming. The National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, received $2 billion for research, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) $8.2 billion. This was the biggest increase in the history of basic-research funding.
The 2010 budget submitted by the Obama administration included full funding for the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 initiative that called for doubling the federal budget for physical sciences. Funding for science and mathematics education was also included.
Analysts observe that human space flight and many other elements of NASA’s mission were never priorities of the Obama administration. In the 2013 budget request, the agency’s astrophysics and planetary-science programs lost 8 percent of their funding compared with 2008. Obama was more interested in fixing problems with the planet and boosted funding for NASA’s Earth-sciences programs by 44 percent over the same period. When viewed in terms of the economic crisis, it makes sense to keep the economic focus at home.
The Republicans swept the midterm elections, and ultra-conservatives went to Washington with one thing in mind: blocking President Obama’s initiatives.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill for 2011 that slashed the budgets of science agencies by nearly $6.7 billion as part of a broad reduction in federal spending. Obama and the Democrats fought back in the Senate, and the final budget trimmed core science activities by just $1.2 billion. The expectations for the 2012 budget are not as optimistic, and many believe the president is not as eager to protect science projects in a year when the conservatives will be out in force against government spending.
According to the Nature article: “Applied research and development has always been a harder sell among conservatives, who fear that the government will ‘pick winners and losers’, and in this case, Republicans were all too happy to run advertisements pointing out that the government had chosen a loser. Chu was sanguine during congressional testimony in November 2011. ‘When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat,’ Chu told lawmakers. ‘I believe we can and must compete.’”
In this election year, the science team wants to complete its work, and on Aug. 28 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the transportation department finalized the changes in vehicle standards that Obama initiated more than three years ago. In the intervening years, the EPA has moved forward with its Supreme Court authority and begun to lay the groundwork for a broad array of climate regulations. Last March, it proposed a rule that would set emissions standards for new power plants and effectively ban coal plants unless they capture and bury carbon dioxide.
Looking back over the past four years, John Holdren, the president’s advisor from the Office of Science and Technology, says that “President Obama has made an unprecedented commitment to science, technology and innovation. … He promised on inauguration day to ‘restore science to its rightful place’—a promise he has kept in spades.”
If you like to write about U.S. politics and Campaign 2012, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.