Scientists also are heartened by Obama's addition of top scientists, like Steven Chu, to his administration. With a Nobel Prize in physics and directorship of a 4,000-person-strong Department of Energy laboratory on his résumé, he may be the most scientifically qualified energy secretary yet. Experts point out, however, that those credentials don't imply an ability to budge the Washington bureaucracy. In Chu's case, political realities and scientific stances already have collided. After saying in September that he wanted taxes in the United States to ramp up the price of gas to European levels, encouraging fuel efficiency, Chu was forced to backpedal at his nomination hearings.
Balancing politics and policy may also delay a reversal of Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Although Obama said during his campaign that he'd reverse the policy with an executive order, he has indicated since then that he'd like the process to go through Congress.
Debra Grega, executive director of the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine in Cleveland, says up to half of her 90 researchers have projects involving embryonic stem cells that they'd like to launch but can't because of lack of funding. Still, she hasn't heard grumblings about the delay. Obama has "demonstrated some good-faith actions" toward the science community, she says. "People are willing to cut him some slack."
The bottom line, scientists say, is that they are more hopeful than they've been in years. But they aren't complacent. "It's going to be up to the American people to keep the focus on this and to really understand that this isn't just an ivory tower issue," Grifo says. "This is, in fact, their health and safety that we're talking about."
Even Obama's supporters realize by now that the president can't single-handedly change the world. But if he adheres to his statements on the sciences, he can help change how the world is studied, and that, scientists say, is a crucial first step.