Saturday, December 20, 2008

Selections of Science Advisers Show Obama Wants Change in Science Policy

The general public will likely overlook the latest appointments President-elect Obama has made today. In naming science advisers, the public largely does not connect the dots of what those selections tell us about the President's views or the path the President wants to follow into the future. There are very few scientists who have 'big names' and there is next to no conversation or debate among average Americans about these selections as there are when, say, Secretaries of State and Defense are named. Those much more notable Cabinet positions have popular, 'big name' individuals at the helm.

Obama is appointing Harvard physicist John Holdren to the position of science adviser, who is the go-to person on science policy. A Harvard marine biologist, Jane Lubchenko, will direct the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), whose primary concern now is climate change. These two individuals are big names in the scientific world and are both experts in climate change. Two other scientists who will co-chair the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology are Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Harold Varmus and MIT professor Eric Lander, an expert in human genome science.

While not household names, this is an impressive team. It also tells us something that will be an ENORMOUS difference with the respect and role science plays at the top of government policy: there actually will be respect for science and a respect for open inquiry, and a goal of gathering facts, data and evidence for policy decisions. The Bush administration has been notorious for ignoring science that contradicts the path ideology laid down, particularly in climate change policy (or a complete lack of such policy, as it turned out). The Bush White House routinely ignored policy initiatives and edited out of papers those scientific findings and evidence from government scientists that contradicted Bush policy. I suspect the world is breathing a collective sigh of relief as well with these appointments and the use of science Obama has in mind. I also would imagine that, while not interested in a formal position within the administration, former Vice President and Nobel laureate Al Gore will play a big role in the development of policy and gaining public and global support for U.S. leadership in its approach to one of the great crises humans have ever collectively faced.

I applaud these selections in the form of a standing ovation, as I am sure scientists all over the world are doing this morning. Science is going to lead the way in the solutions to an enormous number of incredibly important problems and issues. My next post will be a re-post of something I wrote a year ago. While largely under the public radar and fanfare, these are some of the most important appointments Obama will make, and will have a lasting impact on how we are able to attack significant problems for decades to come. I sense a renewed energy and enthusiasm and sense of urgency in the scientific community is upon us.

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