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President’s Corner

The Obama administration and science:
Renewal, potential, and the need for community action

by Richard Anthes, UCAR president

We will restore science to its rightful place . . . and we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.— President Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech, 20 January 2009

In last summer’s installment of this column, I wrote, “American voters will soon elect a new president and a new Congress. Many of us believe it is vital that our nation’s new leaders make an aggressive commitment to deal with challenges associated with severe weather, climate change, and their impacts.” The campaign and election are now over, and the words and early actions of the new Obama administration give hope that science is being restored to a proper place in the development of U.S. policies and actions.

The administration of George W. Bush was repeatedly charged with politicization and abuse of science, including interfering with government science reports and stacking scientific advisory panels with people biased toward administration policies and beliefs. These charges came from many sources, including no less than a group of 48 Nobel scientists, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, and 135 members of the National Academy of Sciences. When science came into conflict with the administration’s ideological or religious beliefs, those beliefs often appeared to dominate, whether they be on evolution, stem cell research, air and water quality, sex education, or climate change.

Obama on science

President Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait, by Pete Souza, is the first to be taken with a digital camera.

The quotes below are taken from President Obama’s campaign statements posted at Science Debate 2008.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views.

I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation’s future. 

As president, I will establish a robust and balanced civilian space program. Under my administration, NASA not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration, but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change, energy independence, and aeronautics research.

Of course, attacking or misusing science is not unique to any political party. NASA scientist James Hansen, who is a political independent, has said that he has experienced political pressure from Democrats as well as Republicans; for example, he says, occasionally the Clinton administration wanted to hear that global warming was worse that it was. In my experience, people of all political backgrounds have misunderstood or distorted scientific data or conclusions on such topics as animal rights, genetic food engineering, biofuels, power line effects on human health, and nuclear power. And many Republicans are staunch supporters of science: two examples from the House of Representatives are Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), former Chair of the House Science Committee, and Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

The abuse of science certainly transcends national and historical as well as political boundaries. Note the religion-based attacks on Galileo and Copernicus during the Renaissance, Russia’s treatment of science under Stalin in the 1930s, the tobacco industry’s distortion of cigarette health risks through much of the 20th century, and China’s recent claims about the efficacy of cloud seeding. The misuse and abuse of science is a global problem that appears to be a consequence of human nature, expressed in statements such as “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts.” (To which the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan replied, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to his own facts.”)

Scientists themselves are not exempt from misusing science to support their own points of view and beliefs. In general, though, this universal human tendency is held in check in the science community by a rigorous peer review system and through the healthy skepticism of critical (and free) scientists, who demand ongoing verification and rechecking of data and analyses, and reexamination of older findings and theories, as new data, technologies, and theories become available.

So if scientific abuse is so prevalent, why are so many scientists optimistic about the new Obama administration?

As a candidate, Obama was consistent in his rhetorical support for scientific research, innovation through science and technology, the restoration of scientific integrity, and the importance of science and mathematics education. As president, he has followed that rhetoric with budget actions that support key science priorities and with strong scientific appointments to relevant positions in his administration (see sidebar at end of article).

One of those appointees is John Holdren (Harvard University), Obama’s new science adviser. In his 2007 AAAS Presidential Address (which was reprinted in the 25 January 2008 issue of Science), Holdren argued persuasively for the essential role of science and technology in creating and maintaining a healthy and sustainable society.

In his Science article, Holdren shows an encouraging ability and willingness to connect complex and interrelated issues, such as the 11 persistent shortfalls he identified in humanity’s pursuit of sustainable well-being:

  • Poverty
  • Preventable disease
  • Impoverishment of the environment
  • Pervasiveness of organized violence
  • Oppression of human rights
  • Wastage of human potential
  • Non-use, ineffective use, and misuse of science and
  • Maldistribution of consumption and investment
  • Incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption
  • Continuing population growth
  • Ignorance, apathy, and denial

The reader might find it interesting to consider these shortfalls and their interwoven roles in such recent disasters as Hurricane Katrina, the national and global financial meltdown, continued violence in the Mideast and Darfur, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China.

Needless to say, the primary focus of the U.S. government this year will be on the economy. While federal budgets will remain extremely constrained, the overwhelming economic challenges facing the country may in fact provide the scientific community with increased support—that is, if we are successful in proving the direct value of science in addressing targeted national problems. President Obama has given us a running start in his public expressions of the value of science, and even more importantly, strong evidence of his commitment to science in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Economic Stimulus Bill), the FY09 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, and his 2010 budget submission.

Now is the time for the UCAR community to step up its efforts in helping to solve the country’s environmental problems and demonstrating how science is critical to the nation’s economic health and security. We must build on our transition document, Advice to the New Administration and Congress: Actions to Make Our Nation Resilient to Severe Weather and Climate Change. Created in partnership with 10 leading organizations in our community, this document lists key goals that we must ensure become national goals. This document and its website will be modified as necessary to provide an up-to-date blueprint for action.

Strong, effective, and creative UCAR advocacy and broad community involvement is perhaps more important now than ever before. The critical nature of science and its relevance to social issues has never been greater and the stakes for our country are high. The new president seems to agree. In an address on20 December, Obama said:

I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery, if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America, if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.


UCAR advocacy priorities for the new administration and Congress

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (new chair, Jay Rockefeller)
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (chair, Jeff Bingaman)
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (chair, Barbara Boxer)
House Energy and Commerce Committee (chair, Henry Waxman) and a new Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
(chair, Edward Markey)
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (chair, Edward Markey)
House Committee on Science and Technology (chair, Bart Gordon)

These committees will play key roles in developing energy, weather, and climate policy in the 111th Congress and beyond. UCAR will emphasize climate research, the supporting observational and computational infrastructure for weather and climate science, and applications of research results to societal problems. Our education and advocacy will be implemented through

  • open and closed Hill briefings (for specific committee members or staff only);
  • written and oral budget testimony;
  • responses to committee requests for hearing witnesses and legislative language;
  • background materials prepared for congressional staff as requested;
  • action alerts to UCAR members, leveraging their broad geographical reach and widespread congressional access;
  • requests for UCAR members and affiliates to provide access to and communicate with their members on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees; and
  • partnerships with community organizations, including the Coalition for National Science Funding, the Alliance for Earth Observations, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Geophysical Union.

Climate mitigation and adaptation
In draft bills, we have seen Congress focus on energy independence and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts without paying much attention to relevant and necessary climate science. One cannot tackle these issues without, for example, better regional projections or predictions of climate change as well as more accurate scenarios for different carbon-dioxide concentration targets. We must continue to advocate for the inclusion of science as such legislation moves forward.

UCAR will hold a Capitol Hill briefing later this year to highlight state-level adaptation activities, the need to better organize these efforts, the role of science in addressing them, and our community’s willingness and ability to contribute to this effort. Such a briefing could help lead to a national summit to bring together mitigation and adaptation players at all levels. Along with this briefing, we will develop related materials for Congress describing current knowledge and research needs.

Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
In John Holdren, OSTP will have a director who is an expert in energy policy and science. Our task is to communicate to Holdren and other OSTP staffers the fact that energy and climate policy cannot be successful without the basic underpinning of continued advances in atmospheric and related science. We must not allow fundamental research to be passed over in the zeal to create energy policy, and we need to demonstrate repeatedly the value of investment in the goals of the transition document.

Energy and climate change
Carol Browner is the first-ever assistant to the president for energy and climate change, acting as a high-level coordinator for energy and environmental policy. It is critically important that we have a discussion regarding the role of our community in informing Browner’s efforts to create energy and climate policy.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
We will continue to meet with NSF, NOAA, and NASA examiners at every opportunity, advocating for community priorities and providing advice on new programs, such as the anticipated national climate service, and existing plans, such as those for the new NCAR supercomputing center.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
We will advocate for the highest possible NSF budget levels, especially given that NSF has been essentially flat-funded for years. UCAR will reiterate the critical importance of NSF at every opportunity with OMB, OSTP and congressional committees. We will emphasize NSF’s contribution to climate change research in particular, its central role in funding basic research for this country, and its potential for funding additional research that will inform adaptation and mitigation policy.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
NASA funding for the 2010s planned by the Bush administration, even before the economic meltdown, falls far short of the recommendations in the National Research Council report Earth and Science Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, otherwise known as the Decadal Survey. The gap between the cost of missions requested and what is needed to fund them continues to grow with time and inflation. Revitalizing Earth science funding is thus a high priority—but we need to make that connection for people who may not automatically link NASA with climate and weather science. On behalf of the community, UCAR will continue to advocate within OMB and Congress for the full complement of missions recommended in the Decadal Survey. Early actions by the Obama administration in the stimulus act and the FY09 and FY10 budgets are extremely encouraging.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Jane Lubchenco, Obama’s nominee for NOAA administrator, will provide the agency with excellent new leadership and serve as a key presence on the Obama energy and climate team.

The Weather Coalition (operated by UCAR’s Office of Government Affairs) recently succeeded in encouraging NOAA to establish an external advisory committee for weather and climate issues. We will continue to participate in the activities of the Friends of NOAA coalition, which includes numerous organizations from both the atmosphere and ocean sides of the community.

UCAR will also advocate for NOAA programs of importance to our community and partner with the ocean community to advocate for the Integrated Ocean Observing System and improved hurricane forecasts and infrastructure. A particular priority is the two long-awaited and much-needed satellite systems, GOES-R and NPOESS (the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series and National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System), and restoration of the climate sensors on NPOESS, several of which may be reinstated in the FY09 budget.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science
Given the high profile of energy issues, DOE is likely to be an increasingly major player in climate-related activities, the importance of which has been emphasized repeatedly by newly confirmed Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Within the Office of Science, we will advocate specifically for Biological and Environmental Research, which funds climate change–related programs and which joins NSF and DOE’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research in cosponsoring the Community Climate System Model.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
USDA and EPA may play increasingly important roles in climate change mitigation and adaptation work under the new administration. The USDA Climate Change Program Office already supports the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, and there is some speculation that EPA’s Office of Research and Development—essentially decimated under the Bush administration—may be resuscitated with new support for climate-related science. UCAR will seek to develop relationships with these agencies and to educate them about the UCAR community’s climate work on mitigation and adaptation efforts.


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