December 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 9

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From the Executive Officer
sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Science is in the Public Interest: Obama gets it, but can he do it?

Four years ago in the December 2008 issue of Footnotes [], I wrote that the science community was “optimistic” that President Obama’s “inclination to take the long view” would be good for basic research.  While the science community was right to be optimistic, the jury is still out on what his administration will have achieved during his eight-year presidency.

Over the past four years, President Obama has spoken eloquently on behalf of science, started and hosted a now annual White House Science Fair, and pursued increase funding for basic science programs (even though federal spending has been tight due to slow economic growth). He has not backed down from his inaugural address statement that his administration “will restore science to its rightful place.” On March 9, 2009, he signed an executive memorandum stating that science decisions would not be based on political ideology but on free and open inquiry. Also, early in his presidency he directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to make sure that federal policies are based on the best scientific information.

President Obama promoted and advanced science in his first term even though science was not a primary campaign topic or a top voter concern in the 2008 election. In 2012, as in 2008 (and most other presidential campaigns), basic science was not a top campaign topic despite strong evidence that basic research has been the foundation of our nation’s economic prosperity over the past 50 years.

The Next Four Years

We do not know what President Obama’s science agenda will be for the next four years, but his responses to the Science Debate 2012 questions gives us some insight. With little focus on science in campaign speeches and debates, Science Debate 2012 responses from Governor Romney and President Obama to 14 science policy questions gives some clues. The questions focused on topics like climate change, food production, space, vaccinations and health, and use of natural resources.

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 The most telling answer, in my view, is the President’s answer regarding innovation and the economy. President Obama stated that in order for our economy to grow and for our nation to be globally competitive “we must create an environment where invention, innovation, and industry can flourish.” The president also stated that he is “committed to doubling funding for key research agencies” that support scientists. Finally, he set a goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers. These teachers will be needed “to train one million additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates over the next decade.”

These are great goals and commitments, but can he do it? How much political capital will he need to spend with Congress to provide the White House with the money necessary to fulfill them? Will Congress be a partner with the White House to advance this agenda?

We obviously won’t know for a while. Post-election, the President and Congress are negotiating to avoid the “fiscal cliff” or sequestration [see September/October Vantage Point]. The results of these negotiations will determine whether money will be added, or drastically cut, from the budgets of key science agencies and to hire 100,000 new science and math teachers could be hired if they were trained. The current positions held by Congress and the White House does not make me optimistic. But ASA, COSSA (the Consortium of Social Science Associations), AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) are working hard to protect and advance science funding.

The other players

While we do not know the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” debate yet, we do know who will be leading the House Science and Technology Committee during the next two (or more) years—Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) who has represented the San Antonio, TX, area since 1987. While this will be his first time serving as Chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, he previously served as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. In the past Smith has expressed interest in space exploration (guess where NASA is!) and STEM education. Smith has been criticized for being a skeptic of manmade climate change. Many in the science community hope that he will work with House of Representative leadership to re-authorize the America COMPETES Act and NASA programs.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will continue to lead the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Rockefeller has represented West Virginia in the U.S. Senate since 1984. He was one of the first co-sponsors of the 1999 legislation, titled the Federal Research Investment Act, which called for the doubling of key federal science agencies budgets. As Chair he has continued to call for the building of technology infrastructure and funding “transformative research.” He is also a strong advocate for the American Community Survey (ACS), which is under threat in the House.

While it is expected that Sen. Rockefeller will be receptive to White House science proposals, Rep. Smith may be another story. So for the next two years significant changes to U.S. science policy may not occur.

Sadly, neither Smith nor Rockefeller has been a strong champion of social science research in the past. This could be bad news. Last year the social science community faced votes that eliminated funding for political science programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and faced proposed legislation that would have eliminated funding for economic research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Could sociology research at these two agencies be targeted next?

During President Obama’s first term, he was praised for promoting science and restoring the status of the science advisor position. But it took a long time to get a strong social scientist into OSTP from the academic community. In the first term key decisions, like stem cell research and climate change, were made that will have a lasting impact on the future of science research. And children seeing President Obama host science fairs may change their career plans. The president’s strong support for science will likely continue into the second term.

We are also players

As social scientists we must increase our role as vocal champions of science and make a stronger case for social science. We must continue to engage the media, local and state officials, friends, and colleagues about the importance of sociology and the vital role of federal programs supported by NSF, NIH, National Institute of Justice, and the Census Bureau, our country now and in the future. We must be vocal champions of our research, effectively communicating that our research findings help identify and address real-world problems.

Don’t wait. While the President understands the importance of science as do we, in order to ensure that more science gets done in the next four years, we need to make sure the general public does too. Science needs to be a top campaign topic in the future and an issue of national concern in pre-election polls.

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


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