Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Science under Obama

The decisive presidential victory of Barack Obama last night has given millions of ordinary people hope for the future, but it also represents a symbolic end to the "war on science" that has been waged by the current administration. Scientists across the country now share the hope that the newly-elected administration will not only reverse the politicization of science that has taken place over the past eight years, but also demonstrate a renewed commitment to maintaining the competitiveness of the United States in science and technology by expanding our investment in basic research.

The abuses of the Bush administration -- distorting and suppressing scientific research for political purposes -- has been well documented within several federal agencies. Much of this information has come from a series of surveys conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists over the past few years, and their efforts to restore scientific integrity now represent one of the top priorities of the organization. Scientists are consistently ranked by the public as more credible than politicians or even journalists, so it's important that their research is free from government interference and that their conclusions are released to the taxpayer-sponsors without political censorship. One indication that Barack Obama intends to use science to craft policy -- rather than the other way around -- can be seen in his proposal for addressing climate change, which aims to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050". This target is not arbitrary, but was taken directly from the recommendations of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing the consensus of thousands of scientists from around the world.

With the rampant international aggression and reckless fiscal policies of the Bush administration, funding for non-military programs has stagnated even as deficit spending has soared and the national debt has more than doubled. The Bush strategy of using irresponsible tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy coupled with massive increases in military spending to justify a shrinking domestic budget has been disastrous for the basic government services that millions of people depend on. But it has also had a corrosive effect on our nation's scientific research facilities -- leaving some of the most promising technologies undeveloped, and stunting the bold new discoveries that attract the brightest young people to pursue careers in science. The newly-elected administration understands that a federal commitment to basic research provides the raw material for future economic growth and prosperity, and ensures our nation’s competitive position in the world. That's why Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation in the Senate in 2007 that tried to boost support for NASA and double the funding for basic research through the National Science Foundation by 2015. Though it sounds ambitious, the annual research budget of the NSF could be doubled for the current cost of about one week of military operations in Iraq.

The global financial crisis has created some uncertainty about what sort of economy the next administration will inherit from George W. Bush, and this has understandably led to a reflection on the nation's priorities. With the right leadership -- one that uses sound science to craft effective policy, and that understands the importance of an investment in basic research -- scientists can help turn this economy around. With Barack Obama at the helm, it just might happen.