Obama, science, and a new team in Washington

President-elect Barak Obama has built a fascinating team to deal with science, environment, and energy issues.

Among the newest additions: Jane Lubchenco, a highly regarded marine scientist from Oregon State University; and John Holdren, director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of government.

And lest we forget the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), we have Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate, along with Eric Lander, a key player in the human-genome project who also is founding director of a joint program between MIT and Harvard that focuses on using genomics in biomedical research.

Dr. Varmus's nomination to PCAST brings the number of Nobel laureates among Obama's nominees to two -- including Steven Chu, currently head of the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory and Obama's pick to head the Department of Energy. Varmus and Dr. Lander will co-chair PCAST, along with Dr. Holdren.

Folks have called this a "dream team" for science policy. And it may well be. But some specialists caution that resumes don't always translate into effective governing or policymaking. That remains the unanswered question with this group, they say.

The answer in large part hinges on Obama's picks people for second and third-tier appointments -- folks who will be the deputy secretary, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries at these agencies. These are the folks who have more direct contact with individual program managers whose minions implement new policies. It's a bit like the chain of command on a naval vessel. Sure, there's a captain and subordinate officers. But the people who really run the ship day in and day out are the chief petty officers.

Another challenge this administration may face is one of inflated expectations. Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, looks overseas for one example. During a phone chat, he pointed to the celebration among environmentalists and climate activists in Australia when Kevin Rudd took over there as Prime Minister in 2007.

Unlike his predecessor, John Howard, Rudd's platform had a pro-Kyoto Protocol plank firmly nailed to it. Once in office, his government ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. He was the toast of global climate talks in Bali in December 2007.

And now? His government's latest climate plan calls for a 5 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. And the policy uses 2000 as a base year, not the 1990 base year current global warming treaties use. He ran headlong into the practical realities of Australian politics.

"He's being pilloried by environmentalists," Dr. Pielke observes.

"What if cap-and-trade isn't passed in 2009 or 2010?" Pielke asks, or Obama and Congress pass a climate program that on paper looks to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020, but all the footnotes and exceptions translate into reductions of only 4 to 5 percent -- which is the book on the European Union's new climate plan?

No final climate bill until 2011?

In fact, he and others suggest, any US climate program that includes cap and trade provisions, or perhaps a carbon tax, probably has little chance of passage before 2011. Much of 2009 will undoubtedly be taken up with the economic crisis. And 2010 is an election year. Who wants to pick an election year to put forward a plan that opponents can argue will cost consumers and the economy money -- even though any cost actually gets lost in the "noise," the ordinary ups and downs, of economic activity?

With scientists named to top administration positions, protecting the integrity of science that government researchers conduct would seem to be a slam dunk. But Daniel Sarewitz, a science-policy specialist at Arizona State University who worked for the late Rep. George Brown (D) of California when he headed what is now the House Science Committee, cautions against the notion that there is a pure way and an impure way to involve science in the political decision-making process.

"The reality is that the Bush administration did it an impure way that many people, myself included, have found particularly disturbing and in some cases more egregious than in the past," he says. But in the end the mix of science in political decision-making "is always impure because political issues are not about factual disputes but about values disputes."

"Some of the outrageous and genuine abuses of the Bush administration aside, most of what's going on is politics as usual," he says.

Perhaps Obama can help clear the air about the confusion between what Sarewitz describes as the means of science and the ends of politics. If the president-elect chooses to buck the recommendations of some of his science advisors, he should be clear and accurate in acknowledging what the science says and equally clear about his reasons for compromising or disregarding the advice.

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