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The Obama Era

The new president promises more funding for research, a new environmental agenda and an end to the lack of transparency of the Bush era

CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES/AFPThe expectations of US scientists with the coming to power of the first black president in the United States’ history, Barack Obama, who takes office on January 20, are as optimistic as those of the 64 million citizens who voted for him. Intentions are good: Obama has promised to increase funding for the National Institute of Health (or NIH as it is better known) and for the North American Space Agency (NASA), as well as investing a record sum in research into renewable energies, removing obstacles to embryonic stem-cell research and to totally turning around the country?s environmental agenda, which during the Bush era was characterized by denial of global warming.

The conditions to move forwards with these proposals are auspicious: the Democratic Party has a majority in both the congressional houses. “Obama’s proposals are a sign that the president elect recognizes the importance of science to the country,” declared Ralph Cicerone, chairman of the US National Academy of Sciences, to Nature magazine. “The world respects North American science and it can serve as an instrument of goodwill and of good policy,” he stated.

The main question is to know to what extent the new president’s ambitions will be blocked by the hard reality of the crisis. The fact that he was the favorite of the scientific sector was made clear during the campaign, when Obama attracted the support of 61 Nobel Prize winners, while his rival John McCain had the endorsement of a paltry five winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics supporting his anti-crisis platform.

The clear opposition to the Bush government’s policies in the field of science and the environment, which were viewed as obscure by a broad spectrum of the academic community, helped to pave the way for the support for Obama.

With regard to embryonic stem-cell research, Obama has already shown his true colors. Just a few days after he was elected, through John Podesta (the head of his transition team), he announced that he will suspend the ban which was imposed by President Bush, for religious reasons, on federal funding for research using embryonic stem-cells produced after August 9th 2001. “In relation to stem-cell research, and on various themes, we see that the Bush administration did things that will probably not benefit the country,” declared Podesta.

How to overturn the ban is something that is still being discussed. The most likely course of action is that Obama will issue an executive order canceling the ban and will sponsor new legislation on this issue, which would allow work to be carried out on any stem-cells from embryos discarded at fertilization clinics. Bush had already vetoed bills of this type on two occasions, but a few weeks ago democratic congresswoman Diana DeGette submitted a bill that allows the use of stem-cells regardless of the date on which they were obtained. However, experts believe that there is no need for an executive order. Attorney Robin Alta Charo, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, said that the result would be the same if Obama simply communicated to the NIH that they should start to encourage research into new stem-cells.

If the stem-cell question is off to a good start, there are doubts about the speed with which Obama will manage to implement his policies in the energy and environment fields in the midst of the recession. Embracing the opposite position of that of President Bush, who refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, President Obama proposes compulsory reductions of greenhouse gases and has declared that he favors the system of purchase and sale of carbon credits sparked off by this agreement. “Delay is no longer an option and denial is no longer an acceptable response,” declared the new president. However it is possible that legislation in this context will not be approved before 2010. There is consensus within the future government that 2009 should focus on dealing with the problems of unemployment and the economic crisis – and that the control of greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short term, does not help with these objectives. “Climate change legislation is controversial even among the Democratic Party’s senators and congressmen and it is unlikely that this issue will be dealt with at the start of this government’s administration,” said David Goldston, who writes a column for Nature magazine.

There are less ambitious options that may give Obama some breathing room in the first year of his mandate. As the democratic senator for New Mexico Jeff Bingaman said to the Bloomberg agency, 2009 might see a vote taken on a bill aimed at encouraging energy conservation in buildings and means of transport as well as producing more electricity from renewable sources. Another possibility is that 18 states that are interested in implementing restrictions on the emission of gases by automobiles may be allowed to do so. The Bush government managed to block such regulations using the argument that these come under federal authority. Many researchers are confident that other types of obstacles will also be removed. David Wilcove, a professor of ecology at   Princeton University, is leading a campaign to reinstate provisions that were previously part of piece of federal legislation dating from 1976 regulating forest husbandry, so as to maintain the viability of vertebrate populations. A number of restrictions were suspended in 2005 to benefit the timber industry.

During the campaign, Barack Obama argued emphatically in favor of increasing government funding for research in the United States. He promised to spend US$15 billion a year on development of renewable energies versus the current US$ 2 billion. He also gave his backing to a request from scientists to double the NIH’s current US$ 30 billion a year budget over the next ten years. When he was canvassing for votes in Florida, where NASA is based, Obama promised to revitalize space exploration, which is regarded as insufficient to achieve the objectives proposed by Bush: a return to the Moon before 2020 and manned missions to Mars thereafter. The new president has already proposed extending the useful life of the current space shuttles, which should be withdrawn from service in 2010, and bringing forward the launch of the space ships that will replace them, which is forecast for 2015. Therefore, NASA’s budget, which totals US$ 17 billion a year, would get a boost of a further US$ 2 billion at least. As the deficit in US federal accounts has hit   US$ 1 trillion and a number of economic sectors are clamoring for help, it seems unlikely that the new president will be able to keep all his promises. “Obama promised a lot of things – all of which cost money,” said republican congressman Vern Ehlers, one of the most eloquent supporters of research and education within the US Congress.

But there are some promises that do not depend on money. During his election campaign, Obama committed to raise the status of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (or OSTP as it is known), whose importance had dropped under the George W. Bush administration.  Expectation revolves around the name that Obama will choose for the position. The man who was Obama’s scientific advisor during his election campaign was Harold Varmus, director of the National Institute of Health from 1993 to 1999, and the 1989 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize laureate in 1989 for the discovery of retroviral oncogenes. The position of OSTP Director was not filled during the first five months of the Bush administration. Eventually, the physicist John Marburger was appointed to it, but he had little prestige within the White House hierarchy and lacked direct access to the president. Marburger ended up involved in a number of accusations of censorship of documents and depositions of researchers linked to the government, always within the context of playing down forecasts about the effects of global warming. It was only in September 2007 that the spokesperson for the Bush administration admitted that climate change is a fact and that the Earth could become an “uninhabitable” place if cuts were not made in carbon monoxide emissions.

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