Will the scientific community change as Obama takes office?

January 20, 2009--On this U.S. Presidential Inauguration day, I thought it would be appropriate to share some viewpoints about what an Obama administration may mean to the scientific community--especially to the problem of global climate change. In a January 19 article online at www.usatoday.com entitled "Budget, politics have role in Obama's agenda for science," author Dan Vergano provides an interesting perspective. Excerpts from the article follow:

Jan 20th, 2009

January 20, 2009--On this U.S. Presidential Inauguration day, I thought it would be appropriate to share some viewpoints about what an Obama administration may mean to the scientific community--especially to the problem of global climate change. In a January 19 article online at www.usatoday.com entitled "Budget, politics have role in Obama's agenda for science," author Dan Vergano provides an interesting perspective. Excerpts from the article follow:

The politics of science, which has been storm-tossed for the past eight years, head for uncharted waters with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The Bush administration has fought a long battle with the nation's scientific community over funding and philosophy with great divides forming over such issues as global warming and stem-cell research. Scientists are hopeful that Obama, who has already called for increased research spending, will bring a new dawn. But how realistic are their hopes? And can the nation afford to make them a reality?

"My administration will value science. We will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that facts demand bold action," Obama said at the nomination of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, a climate change technology advocate, as the next Secretary of Energy.

"I think we are seeing some really good first steps, appointment of people that the science community take seriously, people who value science," says environmental scientist Donald Kennedy, Stanford University's president-emeritus.

But others sound a note of caution.

"The air of anticipation in the nation's laboratories and faculty clubs is not unfounded; the danger is that it will become excessive," writes David Goldston, a former chief of staff with the House Science Committee, in a recent Naturemagazine. "Scientists are going to have to contain their insatiable appetite for dollars, and their tendency to see politicians as either with them or against them, for the current mood to survive much beyond inauguration," says Goldston.

Tipping his cap
The most immediate change may be in the White House's attitude toward global warming. Obama has selected other key advisers who are strong advocates of taking action to address climate change. In addition to Chu, he picked Harvard's John Holdren, a climate and energy expert, to be his science adviser and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Obama has pledged to curb heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases by selling industries limited rights to release emissions, creating a "cap and trade" market. Cap and trade markets, such as the existing European Union Emission Trading Scheme, allow firms to buy and sell emission credits while keeping the total amount of emissions under an upper limit, or cap.

For the average household, a cap and trade plan in which credits are sold to polluters--and "dividend" money is returned to taxpayers--would affect power rates, boosting annual household energy costs $809, finds a recent Resources for the Future analysis. But the poorest 20% of consumers would gain an average $145 through tax breaks.

"We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050," Obama pledged during the campaign. His energy plan includes yearly weatherization of 1 million homes, $7,000 tax credits for fuel-efficient cars and putting 1 million hybrid cars on roads by 2015. The Bush administration has not capped power-plant emissions, stressing the need for voluntary agreements and technological advances to address climate change. In 2001, President Bush renounced the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions on the grounds that it could hurt the U.S. economy and unfairly exempted China.

Defending Bush record
"Anything would likely be an improvement for scientists after Bush," says physicist Robert Park of the University of Maryland, College Park, who writes an Internet roundup of science politics widely read by researchers.

In 2004, Nobel-winning scientists actively campaigned against Bush. The 250,000-member Union of Concerned Scientists and the 131,000-member American Association for the Advancement of Science have criticized administration stands on science issues.

But some, such as current White House science adviser John Marburger, say the controversial issues have overshadowed actions by the Bush administration that have won favor with conservation groups, such as declaring four oceanic national monuments, creating the world's largest marine reserve. "When you consider the real behavior, as opposed to the symbols, the past eight years have been good for science," says Marburger. He points to the administration's steady support for research funding, including the doubling of the NIH budget to about $28 billion in 2004. And Marburger notes that the Bush administration started a new research agency at the Department of Homeland Security, while also proposing a doubling of funds for basic research two years ago.

But right up to the finish line, the administration is battling it out with science and health advocates in high-profile science-related scraps over mercury levels in fish, the endangered status of polar bears and air pollution limits.

Looking ahead
A bevy of science headaches awaits Obama:

--NASA's direction. Obama has called for more "balance" with a shift away from the manned missions touted by Bush and toward climate science.

--Debate over nuclear weapons modernization. Some scientists are calling for expanded testing and others call it unnecessary. Physicists such as Holdren have been skeptical of "midcourse" interceptor missiles championed by the Defense Department.

--U.S. participation in an international fusion power reactor signed onto by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but blocked by Congress last year.
"The real question is: Facing a very serious recession, what can a short-term stimulus do to address the basic budget questions that are facing the underpinnings of our science and technology enterprise," Marburger says.
"They are going to have to bite a lot of bullets to fix things and not try to do everything all at once."

For the complete article, go to www.usatoday.com/weather/news/2009-01-18-scientific-climate-obama-administration_N.htm?csp=34.

--Posted by Gail Overton, gailo@pennwell.com.

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