When President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus package this week at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the symbolism was clear as he stood in the building that houses a stegosaurus skeleton, a full-scale model of a Mars exploration rover, and a solar panel installation. So was his statement that he hoped the bill would spur "new discoveries and breakthroughs in science, in medicine, in energy."
It remains to be seen how Obama will "restore science to its rightful place," as he promised at his inauguration. But some of his early moves are allowing the scientific community to cautiously sigh with relief after eight years of seeing science, at times, politicized, underfunded, or ignored.
One early indicator of Obama's stance on science has been his stimulus bill, which underpinned his rhetoric with cash. The final version funnels $21.5 billion to research and development funds, according to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That's welcome relief for the science community, which has seen federal funding slide in recent years. In the 2008 fiscal year, the government allocated $3.5 billion less to research and development than in 2007. "In a stimulus bill, which is so focused on short-term economic recovery, it's surprising and gratifying to see R&D investments, which are traditionally regarded as long-term investments, have such a prominent place," says Kei Koizumi, former director of AAAS's R&D Budget and Policy program.
One agency that particularly benefits from the windfall is the National Institutes of Health. At $10.4 billion, the provision going to NIH equals more than a third of its 2008 budget. Much of the boon came from Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who fought for a $10 billion amendment to the stimulus bill for NIH funding in exchange for his vote. Long an advocate for the agency, he led the campaign to double NIH funding over five years, until 2003. Since then, however, NIH funding had flattened.
Other institutions get even larger relative infusions of cash. The $600 million slated for the National Institute of Science and Technology is equivalent to 80 percent of the agency's 2008 budget. And with $3 billion, the National Science Foundation gets nearly half of its 2008 budget. Rounding out the top recipients is NASA, whose $1 billion may be only 5 percent of its 2008 budget but includes $400 million each for exploration and science research. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy's Office of Science gets, with $1.6 billion, 40 percent of its 2008 budget.
Because of the hit-or-miss nature of research, broad-based funding, like that in the stimulus bill, is particularly important, says Steve Girvin, Yale University's deputy provost for science and technology. "The interesting thing about scientific research is that you can never tell where it's going to go," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of it is a complete waste of time, but you can never tell what 99 percent, and the 1 percent that does succeed changes our lives."
As important as funding to the sciences, experts say, is Obama's revoking of a Bush executive order that put political appointees in charge of the regulatory divisions of federal agencies.
Issued in January 2007, Bush's order allowed the White House to hand-pick a point person for each agency who would supervise the creation of rules guiding the regulated industry, a role previously undertaken by scientific experts and civil servants. While the administration said the directive wasn't targeted toward any single agency, insiders said it was intended to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Bush's order was one of "so many examples" of politicization of science, says Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union for Concerned Scientists. "I can tell you the hundred most egregious examples, but I can't point to just one," she says. Those examples range from embargoing an EPA report that showed that American vehicles' fuel efficiency had declined until after a vote on a key energy bill to a surgeon general's allegations that his speeches were censored and reports suppressed.
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.