Science, Reason, and the Obama Administration

December 24, 2008

    Commentary to appear in the March/April 2009 Skeptical Inquirer  

Will the new presidency of Barack Obama usher in a more welcoming age for science and reason? We at least have cause for hope. A president’s intellectual outlook is only one of many things that shape changes in culture and society, but the early signs are encouraging.

The Bush administration chalked up so many negatives in regard to scientific thinking, reason, and open inquiry that there may be no way to go but up. The president himself was a born-again and encouraged the far-right evangelical wing of his party; he ascribed to the “equal time” strategy of creationists in their opposition to teaching evolution, for example. His political appointees left a long and well-documented record of ideological interference in the recommendations of scientists at NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and on and on. He restricted stem cell research, and only begrudgingly came to accept global warming. He actively practiced a “from the gut” style of decision making that marginalized well-informed rational analysis and caused a litany of international problems.

Obama, elected by a 53 to 47 percent margin, is the stark opposite in many key respects. His background is multicultural and his outlook international. He espouses learning and education, including science education. He has exhibited a welcome centrist, moderate, pragmatic outlook that seems to eschew ideological extremes on either side of the political spectrum. He has repeatedly demonstrated intellectual agility, a critical awareness, and an ability to synthesize and plan. He has shown an obvious willingness to entertain a wide variety of viewpoints before making decisions, one mark of a critical thinker. He has shown every tendency to welcome the best minds to his administration, including former rivals, and to listen to them. He signaled early on that he quickly would rescind the Bush administration’s rulings against research on new lines of stem cells. He recognizes that climate change is real and says, “We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and national security, and it has to be dealt with in a serious way.”

His lengthy written response during the campaign to the top fourteen science questions facing America ( was shaped by numerous scientific notables including Nobel laureates—a welcome sign in itself—and said everything a science-minded person would like to hear. (The topics were climate change, energy, education, national security, pandemics and biosecurity, genetics, stem cells, ocean health, water, space, science integrity, research, and health.) He promised to defend scientific integrity: “I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees.”

His appointment of Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as energy secretary harks back to a welcome tradition when distinguished scientists not politicians headed the top energy agency (the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner to the Department of Energy).

Some scientists called for him to quickly appoint a top-flight science advisor and give that person prominent status in the White House. Obama had pledged to strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and to restore the credibility and role of the Office of Science and Technology Policy as an office within the White House structure. But it didn’t happen immediately. The first month of Obama’s post-election transition was necessarily devoted to responding to the sudden US and world financial crisis that brought the most serious downturn in the economy since the Great Depression. He rapidly assembled his economic and national security teams before beginning the rest of his cabinet and other appointments. Given the urgent circumstances, few would dispute that priority.

Word about Obama’s Science Advisor appointment then came on December 19, the day after he completed his cabinet appointments. His Science Advisor is John Holdren, a respected physicist long known for his work on energy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. Holdren is director of the program on science, technology, and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2006.

Obama’s appointee as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, another key science appointment, is marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. She is professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and the OSU Distinguished Professor of Zoology. She is a MacArthur Fellow and, like Holdren, also a former AAAS president. “When has NOAA been headed by a member of the National Academy and a fellow of the Royal Society?” commented Andrew Rosenberg, a University of New Hampshire professor of natural resources and a former NOAA deputy director under the Clinton administration. “That’s exactly the right signal…. It establishes NOAA as one of those key scientific agencies.” He called her an “absolutely world-class scientist” and said the appointment means science agencies now have a role in policy.

In his science team rollout radio address of December 19, Obama not only announced those appointments but also revealed that science notables Harold Varmus and Eric Lander would be co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, along with Holdren. “Together, they will work to remake PCAST into a vigorous external advisory council that will shape my thinking on the scientific aspects of my policy proposals,” said Obama.

Varmus is a 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Lander, is director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, and was, as Obama proudly said, “one of the driving forces behind mapping the human genome—one of the greatest scientific achievements in history.”

So the Obama White House could hardly have a more distinguished set of people in the key science positions. And it sounds as if Obama sees them as more than figureheads.

“It is time to once again put science at the top of our agenda and work to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology,” said Obama, words that should please all who have long been warning of America’s slippage in the world of science. And for those concerned about the integrity of science and its previous abuses, his words were an early Christmas present: “The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say 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.”

So the outlook is tentatively hopeful for a time in which scientific thinking, education, learning, and unfettered inquiry will have some greater support and encouragement from the highest position in the land. And that is welcome.

* * *

Nevertheless, there are limitations to how much a president can do. Mo
ney is the top problem. The federal budget was under serious pressures even before the October-November financial meltdown and the resulting hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer-financed bailouts. Obama’s first large spending program announced as president-elect was to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, surely a welcome and much-needed enterprise. But that spending will further restrict his options on funding new programs of scientific research. Unless and until the economy can begin expanding again, science will have access to one piece of a shrinking pie.

An early sign of this problem was a statement from his new economic council director Lawrence Summers that while an increase in federal research and development is good for the long-term health of the economy, R&D would not be included in the economic stimulus package. The Association of American Universities subsequently released a proposal sent to Obama for just such a stimulus, including “academic research facilities modernization and $1.8 billion to research universities to hire more young scientists and engineers.

Secondary-school education in the U.S. is funded mainly at local and state levels, and those entities are likewise under new financial constraints. And, even if they weren’t, money isn’t the sole solution. Results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, announced in December, show U.S. students are doing no better on this international science exam than they were ten years ago, while a number of other countries’ performances rose. One bright spot was U.S. students’ performance in mathematics. The average score among fourth-graders has jumped 11 points since 1995, to 529. Eighth graders also earned a higher average score than in 1995 and were better than their counterparts in 37 countries (but still less than China, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong). Educators and policy makers have been focused on improving math education in recent years. One can hope science education and scientific literacy will likewise get a new emphasis in American culture.

And while it will be wonderful to have a president who doesn’t doubt evolution, national political leadership can only go so far in shaping attitudes in this area. Well-funded evangelical groups are still mounting intense media campaigns denouncing evolution as false science, or worse, and extolling two-thousand-year-old biblical stories as real science. Much of this effort takes place on religious television broadcasts, in churches, and in political action at the local and state level. As communications researcher Jon D. Miller has said, America is out on a limb by itself in its rejection of evolution. Polls show the U.S. is thirty-third out of thirty-four countries in evolution acceptance (only Turkey rates lower). That’s not going to be fixed by a new president, no matter how enlightened.

Whether the economy and budget considerations end up trumping the hopeful plans and intentions of the Obama administration remains to be seen. But he represents a welcome breath of fresh air and a sense of hope not only to the population at large (both in the U.S. and worldwide) but to all who support science-based inquiry and the use of rationality and reason in examining issues important to us all.