The U.S. Election & Global Science

The U.S. Election & Global Science

The worldwide scientific community has always yearned for leaders who, if not themselves scientists or engineers, at least comprehend the importance of science and technology to society. President Obama has returned us to an older tradition of respect for science.

As our Winter 2009 edition of the magazine set the stage for the celebration of the eerily congruent bicentennials of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, I proposed a connection between Darwin's science and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which gave practical meaning to the groundbreaking assertion in the American Declaration of Independence that all humans are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. These noble threads of American history and hind sights into the origins of humankind resonated with the landmark inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20.

Because this Spring 2009 edition looks at the science promise of an Obama administration, my thoughts turn to another event that occurred only weeks after the birth of Darwin and Lincoln. On March 4, 1809, the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, turned the nation over to James Madison. According to historians, both Madison and Jefferson were members of the New York Academy of Sciences, a fact that suggests America's early political leaders held science in respect long before it made the extraordinary contributions to human welfare we now appreciate.

While Madison was no slouch as an intellect, Jefferson was perhaps unique in the history of American presidents in his passion for and knowledge of science and technology—horticulture, archaeology, architecture, and so on.

On April 27, 2009, President Obama delivered this speech on his science and technology priorities at the National Academy of Sciences. Visit the NAS web site to view video.

In 1962, President John Kennedy, who also held science in high regard, invited a record 49 Nobel Laureates to dinner and said: "This is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The worldwide scientific community has always yearned for leaders who, if not themselves scientists or engineers, at least comprehend the importance to society of science and technology. A few countries—notably China—hold a tradition of leaders trained as engineers. In the U.S. and too many other nations, political leaders have often embodied the effects of what C.P. Snow called the Two Cultures: to them, science is a foreign tongue.

President Obama has returned us to an older tradition of respect for science. Just before his inauguration on January 20th, and just after his stunning list of science appointments emerged, The Economist's January 8 edition cheekily announced: "Blessed Are the Geeks for They Shall Inherit the Earth."

To illustrate the point, the British weekly published the cartoon displayed on this issue's cover, showing a broadly grinning president flanked by his chosen science leadership. We haven't seen this much science in the White House since the late Clinton Administration when the President became personally fascinated by what science portended.

The Obama post-inaugural euphoria is palpable. And yet, as with every other daunting challenge our society faces today, the Obama team, brilliant as it is, cannot by itself accomplish what our world so desperately needs.

To illustrate this point, here are science tests that will confront the new administration in the months and years to come:

  • How will Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren actually influence Cabinet decisions? Will science and technology ever exert its proper policy influence as long as it remains unrepresented in the Cabinet?
  • How will Secretaries such as Steve Chu at Energy or Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services induce those enormous bureaucracies to take a quantum leap forward?
  • How will the research funding agencies overcome the aging of grant-getters and the conservatism of peer review?
  • Who on the Obama team will ensure that science and technology play a transformative role in driving the sort of innovation that leads immediately to economic and social gain?
  • Even with spectacular improvements in the functioning of U.S. departments and agencies, the global challenges in climate, disease, nutrition and poverty alleviation, equitable resource allocation, and the like require multinational solutions. Who will assemble the needed coalitions on these matters, and will they bring science and technology to the table when policy is really being made?
  • How will Education Secretary Arne Duncan address our deeply troubled primary and secondary school system to ensure that we don't merely improve learning standards but begin to excite young people in S&T careers?
  • What will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano do to implement new visa policies that welcome the best and brightest from all over the world instead of blocking their entry?

You will have other questions of this sort. Many will be more incisive than mine. Don't hesitate to e-mail me yours. It would be fascinating to see what our community realizes are the challenges that run deeper than simply how our stem cell policy changes or what level of added funding should go to NSF and NIH. And to our international members, since American science has played a crucial role in catalyzing investments in science and technology in your countries, what do you expect of this Obama Administration? Send your thoughts to erubinstein@nyas.org.