The Monitor's View

Obama as 'science president'

The US needs to back research and education that can solve problems like climate change.

If he is to satisfy the disparate, eager hopes of Americans, Barack Obama needs to wear more hats than Queen Elizabeth II. One of them will be as a "science president," supporting basic research and science education that will benefit the public good long after he leaves office.

It's clear Mr. Obama is comfortable with technology. He made good use of the Internet to recruit and stay in touch with his followers and raise a huge pile of campaign cash. Earlier this week he confirmed his credentials on fighting climate change – a concern for most of the scientific community – saying that he'll keep it a top priority by folding it into his plan to create "green" jobs.

By now, the case for government support of science would seem easy to make. "[W]ithout scientific progress, no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world," wrote computer scientist Vannevar Bush to President Truman at the end of World War II, noting the scientific progress that had resulted from the war effort. Just weeks after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, President Eisenhower appointed the first official White House science adviser. He's been followed by 13 others, mostly physicists.

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The problem for the next president won't be a lack of science advice. According to a count in 2003, some 8,000 scientists serve on about 400 federal advisory committees. They generate roughly six new government reports per day.

Nearly all the great issues facing Obama involve science or technology as part of the solution, including reviving the economy, reforming healthcare, and keeping the US military the best in the world. But in the end, all one leader can be expected to do is absorb the avalanche of advice and weigh it in balance with policy goals and political necessities.

During the Bush administration, science became entwined with controversial social issues, notably stem cell research. President Bush sought to appease both those favoring and those opposing government-funded research, but only enraged a good part of the scientific community.

Obama has pledged to "restore integrity" to US science policy by making decisions informed by the best available evidence. His goals include doubling federal investment in basic research, supporting young scientists with grants, recruiting and funding K-12 math and science teachers, making corporate R&D tax credits permanent, and extending broadband Internet access to all Americans.

That's a good list, but hardly everything.

He will also need to deal with the promise and perils of biotechnology and nanotechnology, and guide NASA as it determines the next steps into space. He'll have an opportunity to use technology to make government more transparent and accessible through two-way conversations via the Internet. And he'll appoint administrators in a range of agencies who will need a sound understanding of science.

With Obama receiving so much input from so many sources, the next White House science adviser will best serve as his "options czar." He or she should sift through the blizzard of data and ensure that the president has before him viable choices based on sound science.

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