December 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 9

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From the Executive Officer

Science in an Obama Administration

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Unsurprisingly, basic science did not make the top ten list of presidential campaign debate topics over the 21 months leading up to the historic November 4th national election. Scientific research did not emerge among the high-priority concerns of voters in pre-election polls, even though science ranks highly among Americans’ preferences as a foundation for developing public policy and despite concern raised about the state of science in the federal government by a number of interest groups.

This was not for lack of strong voices from the science community about the importance of science and innovation in government, as a key to our economic engine, as integral to the nation’s still-enviable higher education enterprise and as foundational to our technological advances.

Advocating for Science

Throughout campaign season, the science community did its share of "knocking on the doors" of both the electorate (e.g., Research!America’s Your Candidates - Your Health 2008 initiative) and the campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) each sent recommendations on, among other issues, the importance of quickly appointing a highly regarded science adviser reporting directly to the president in keeping with the importance of science in our modern society.

The AAAS letter, coordinated with the Association of American Universities and endorsed by a coalition of 178 business, education, and science organizations, including the ASA (see, urged that the next U.S. science adviser be a nationally respected leader selected before the swearing in of our 44th President. It also advised that he/she be appointed at the rank equivalent to a Cabinet-level secretary. The AAAS-sponsored letter also emphasized that many issues (e.g., economic competitiveness, energy, climate change, health care) demand immediate, solid, and reliable scientific input. This situation, the letter urged, requires an administration for which it is second nature to rely upon and seek out quality advice without hesitation (or fear of difficult policy implications) on matters involving science and technology.

Change That’s Needed Immediately

vpFor years, the scientific leadership of the United States has encouraged presidents to recognize that science must be at the table. That is, the stature of the position of Science Adviser to the President and the effectiveness with which the occupant can negotiate with Cabinet-level agencies, especially the Office of Management and Budget, requires the Science Adviser to enjoy Cabinet-level status. The NAS 2008 advice to presidential candidates (Science and Technology for America’s Progress: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments in the New Administration) echoed yet again the need for earlier blue-ribbon panels. President George W. Bush did not appoint his science adviser, John H. Marburger, III, until nearly six months into the administration’s tenure and assigned him and his office (the Office of Science and Technology Policy) a status lower than that of the previous science adviser in the Clinton Administration. By the time the Senate confirmed Marburger three months later, the White House had already made key decisions on climate change and stem cell research, two areas that would have benefited incalculably from informed advice of a science leader. Should President-elect Obama take heed, his new science adviser could be instrumental in shaping the 2009 and 2010 federal science and research budgets and be helpful should there be a science-relevant crisis.

Science policy is, however, not only the incoming Administration’s responsibility. The scientific community must also step up to the plate. The 2008 NAS report identifies some 80 high-level advisory positions that will be essential to the new president finding his way among issues ranging from energy to health care to economic growth. The report encourages members of the scientific community to serve in these positions, suggesting ways the Administration can help make it more attractive for well-qualified people to do so (e.g., reducing bureaucratic complexity and burdens of applying).

As the ink was drying on the newspaper editions announcing Obama as President-elect, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), of which ASA is a founding member, submitted a 12-page set of recommendations to the president-elect regarding federal agency activities and budgets of relevance to advancing a science-informed foundation for research, statistical, and other federal agencies with an investment in the social sciences. Similarly, the National Humanities Alliance, of which ASA is also a member, released a transition document. ASA will be following up with advice to the scientific and professional societies to actively reach out to the president’s science adviser and other senior administration leaders.

Distilling Elements of a Science Agenda

The Science Debate 2008 initiative (see, cosponsored by concerned citizens, the AAAS, universities, and others, attempted to draw attention to science issues and to elicit the candidates’ viewpoints that would enlighten voters about issues of concern to them. In the absence of rhetoric about science in campaign speeches and debates, this effort primarily focused on trying to elicit responses from the candidates to 14 questions critical to the nation’s future regarding science education, applications of science, and health science. Both campaigns eventually provided responses, and Americans and the science community now have a general sense to initially assess the new Obama administration.

As of this writing, in mid-November, the sociological "forensic" evidence is slim about where Obama stands, except for some brief obligatory hints about mainstream issues such as the need for energy independence, attention to global warming, and improved approaches to affording healthcare. There are, however, some hints.

For example, Obama devoted chapter 2 of his 2008 book, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise, to addressing the relationship of America’s prosperity to its scientific and educational institutions. And, peering through the post-election smoke further reveals other supportive views about science. Obama has stated that he agrees with the notion of Cabinet-level status for his science adviser and wants to complement this position with a "chief technology officer," which may be a first. Obama was endorsed by more than 60 Nobel science award winners and responded in Science Debate 2008 that he wants to develop a "robust science agenda." He has expressed support for doubling the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget over ten years. Obama also supports the teaching of scientific explanations and methods in public school science classes and not creationist viewpoints regarding biological evolution. He has also expressed support for expanding science using embryonic stem cells.

There is a sense within the Washington beltway that the antagonism sometimes experienced by scientists and their findings from the current administration will dissipate under Obama. A series of pre-election day letters from Obama to federal agency staff stated directly that his administration will not engage in ideologically based interference in science. This was attempting to reassure the federal science community that its work will not be under attack by a leadership that is supposed to solicit, support, and use solid scientific evidence from government and government-sponsored research (e.g., DOJ, NIH, NSF), statistics (e.g., Census, Labor), and regulatory agencies (e.g., EPA, FDA). This is crucial to instilling public trust in the leadership of a healthy democracy.

Before he was elected, Obama established a science advisory committee led by former National Institutes of Health director Harold Varmus, now president of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The group of five science advisers was in near-daily contact with Obama campaign policymakers. Varmus has indicated that Obama believes federal spending on science and technology is key to economic recovery, industrial innovation, economic growth in a global marketplace, and quality of life. Obama was among the 69 Senators who introduced in 2007 the America COMPETES Act (see November 2007 Footnotes, p. 3) in response to the National Academy of Sciences’ warnings in its report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. The bill was passed into law and authorizes the doubling of NSF’s budget over seven years, though only 2007 saw any move toward this goal, since the legislation was before the onset of the international financial crisis. Because the American public is anxious for immediate fixes, and science promises long-term gains, one of Obama’s perceived dispositional assets is his inclination to take the long view, so the science community is optimistic that this attitude would resonate with the timeline of basic research findings making their way to benefit our everyday lives. We shall work to help make the merits of social science visible to the new administration. small_green

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at


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