The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

The new administration – attitudes toward science

The nomination of Steve Chu for Secretary of Energy was a good first step toward demonstrating that President-elect Obama will take science as a serious component of shaping policy. However, there isn’t too much that is concrete which can tell us what the Obama policies toward science will be. Science informs policy, but policy does the same to the science priorities of the nation. Each field of science has its goals; whether those are compelling enough to rise to respect in the budget, or whether budget priorities will be aimed toward supporting quite broadly the goals of research, is unclear.

There has been more and more news lately about what the coming year might look like. My own impressions are as follows. The first entanglement of this new Congress is clearly the stimulus package. Without a big project which can be marched out, promising construction and engineering jobs and big discoveries, physics finds itself at a disadvantage. That said, I have no doubt the lobbying will commence to try to add money back to science in the current continuing resolution and try to prop the physics budgets back up. It may not work, but people are bound to try it.

The real wonder I have is whether the new President and the new Congress will get around to taking up the FY09 budget, or whether they’ll pass (by remaining on continuing resolution) and focus on FY10. In either case, there will be a lot of work to raise science’s profile. As one colleague said to me today, we need a new buzzword. Science and innovation are so last-President. Well, maybe not. But “innovation” or “competitiveness” might no longer be well-paired with “science”.

How Dr. Chu sells the subject to the President will have a lot to do with its standing in the budget. Will he advocate for basic and applied sciences equally? Will the greening of America cause the budget train to skip the curiosity-driven station? We need an advocate, and I hope that Chu is that person.

The news in the science policy world has been tempting. AIP FYI #124 reports that the House Science committee chair (the committee responsible for authorizing, not appropriating, money) is making things sounds rosey. “He discussed a recent phone call with the President-Elect, quoting Obama as saying, ‘I’m a science guy.’ Gordon spoke of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) continuing support for the Democrats’ Innovation Agenda. Concluded Gordon, ‘A team is in place that will help us move further,’ later adding when speaking of Pelosi, ‘we are very much on the same page.'” [1]

Chairman Gordon also ” . . . spoke of the need to make an effective case for science, saying. ‘times are tough so we must explain’ the benefits of investments in science and technology.” That’s a good sign. However, my own impression in the last 5 years has been that authorizers are cheery and appropriators stop the love. Science has done very well in authorization, but when it comes to laying out money for science the Congress is unwilling to act, or has shown willingness to target programs in political retaliation against their opponents without regard to the value of the science.

Gordon goes onto prognosticate, “I’m thrilled that the President Elect chose someone from the science community, someone who speaks our language. Dr. Chu’s nomination is an indication the incoming Administration will hold science in the highest regard.”

What of Obama’s choice of John Holdren for science advisor? In nominating Holdren, Obama said, “more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.” [2] Obama listed Holdren’s science and leadership cred; notable for me among them was that he, too, is a physicist.

A physicist Energy Secretary? A physicist science advisor? Three physicists in Congress? What’s next, I wonder . . . a nobel prize winner for Supreme Court Justice? Just kidding on that one.

Maybe Obama will be a science president. But that will only matter if there is also a Congress committed to supporting science, LONG TERM.  That will take more work than just pretty words; that’s something that we, as Americans, need to work hard to achieve. In a year when science appears on the radar faster than ever before, we cannot afford to slouch and hope that those at top will do right.