Issue Date: December 1, 2008
In With the New
WHEN BARACK OBAMA is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, many hope he will bring with him a series of new policies and attitudes. After all, he ran for president with the message of change.
Part of this change will most likely include a shift in attitude toward science and technology. The Administration of President George W. Bush, many critics say, has ignored science and repressed scientific exchanges involving federal researchers. Obama has pledged to change all that by insisting that key policy decisions are science based and by putting in place policies to protect scientific integrity.
Obama has also stated his intent to increase funding for science, deal with the energy crisis, and take action to address climate change—to mention only a few of his science-related campaign promises that have the science community excited. Some of these changes will involve executive orders, some may be directives to regulatory agencies, and others would require congressional legislation. The current financial crisis, however, may put some of Obama’s preelection plans on hold.
To help sort through the myriad options and develop the best set of priorities, the president-elect has assembled a transition team and several agency review teams. The teams are also helping Obama identify individuals to fill top federal posts, including his science adviser and heads of both the National Institutes of Health and the Food & Drug Administration.
With this process expected to be ongoing for the next few months, organizations ranging from nonprofits to industry trade groups to internal governmental offices are putting forth wish lists they hope will influence the new Administration.
Transparency of government is one thing many of these groups, as well as the public, are hoping will improve under the Obama Administration. During his campaign, Obama accused the Bush Administration of being “one of the most secretive, closed Administrations in American history,” and he pledged to reverse that trend by using cutting-edge technologies to create “a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.”
This attitude of openness is already apparent as the Obama camp is posting details about the identity of its transition team on its website, www.change.gov. Obama and his top advisers are also making use of the video-sharing website YouTube to report on their progress and share their plans. This prolific use of the Internet is a first for the nation’s top official.
ON THE RESEARCH front, one of the first actions that Obama is expected to take is to allow more federal funding to go to research on a wider array of stem cell lines. Currently, research efforts are limited by an executive order issued by Bush in 2001. Under the executive order, federal funding can be used only to support research on embryonic stem cell lines derived prior to Aug. 9, 2001. Bush twice vetoed legislation—which then-Sen. Obama supported—to expand this policy by allowing more cell lines to qualify for federal funds.
Obama strongly supported an expanded policy during his presidential campaign just as he did during his time in the Senate, points out Lawrence A. Soler, vice president of government relations with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “This is something that can be taken care of in the beginning of the term and that will get funding flowing to more areas of stem cell research very quickly,” Soler says.
The president-elect’s stance on stem cell research is just one example of his science-friendly attitude. In fact, much to the delight of scientific groups, early indications are that science policy will be a higher priority under the incoming Obama Administration than it was for his predecessor. As such, Obama has been receiving plenty of advice in this area.
For example, in September, the National Academies issued a report advising the presidential candidates on the importance of filling key science and technology posts in the federal government. This report, prepared by a committee chaired by former Republican congressman John E. Porter, notes that there are about 80 high-level science and technology appointments that must be made when Obama takes office. Highest priority should be on naming a White House science adviser, the report argues, echoing the advice of other science policy observers in Washington, D.C.
Obama responded to the academies in a letter stating that he is committed to selecting highly qualified individuals throughout his Administration. He also said he plans to issue a presidential executive order establishing clear guidelines for publicly sponsored research, “guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and are not distorted by ideological biases.”
The scientific community is particularly interested in Obama’s appointment of a science adviser. The science adviser must be someone “with impeccable credentials and the respect of the scientific and engineering communities,” says Albert H. Teich, the director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “It has to be someone with the requisite political skills to operate in the high-pressure environment of the White House.”
The quick appointment of a science adviser is also something the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology is advocating. This action, FASEB President Richard B. Marchase explains, would signal a return of science as a critical decision factor for the new president.
“We want to ensure that scientific input returns to a prominent place in the Administration,” Marchase says. He adds that “it’s really critical to us that the leadership for agencies like NIH and the National Science Foundation have a strong scientific background and an appreciation for the role individual investigators play in the country’s progress.”
AAAS, FASEB, and other groups are also calling on Obama to follow through on his campaign pledge to double federal funding for basic research over 10 years. This funding growth would benefit agencies such as NIH, NSF, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
BUT SOME funding proponents are worried that budget gains for science won’t be possible in the short term. “The economic situation is going to place severe constraints on federal programs, and research is likely to be constrained with the rest of the discretionary federal budget,” Teich tells C&EN.
“I think the cruel light of dawn from this financial reality will disappoint many people in terms of science policy and funding,” says Robert S. Boege, executive director of the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA), a coalition of organizations and individuals that advocate for science in Washington. The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, is a member of ASTRA. “It’s clear there is going to be a collision between priorities and objectives and the fiscal realities,” Boege says.
Although the prospects of large funding increases in 2009 may be bleak, Boege is encouraged by the attitude of Obama’s transition team and thinks its members understand the importance of a coherent policy for science and technology. “They know they have to support the system better, especially fundamental research. But we just don’t know how they can ramp it up with other pressing priorities,” he says.
AAAS’s Teich believes that top scientific priorities for the new Administration should be alternative energy and climate change, global health, and support for physical science and engineering. He is buoyed by Obama’s pledge to restore integrity to federal science. “He is certain to treat science and technology with more respect and integrity than was the case in the Bush Administration,” Teich says.
Not everyone has given up hope on short-term funding increases for science, however. “We are very hopeful that, despite the economic turmoil of the past months, the new Administration and Congress will appreciate that an investment in science is critical to national progress,” Marchase says. In fact, he advocates for science funding, particularly for NIH, to be included in any economic stimulus package that comes forward.
The idea of a stimulus package is also part of many industry groups’ wish lists. For instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), the nation’s largest business federation, is calling for additional economic stimulus measures to save and expand jobs in the auto, housing, trade, and infrastructure industries.
“Our newly elected leaders understand that they and the business community have a strong, mutually shared interest to bring about economic recovery as soon as possible,” says Thomas J. Donohue, USCC’s president and chief executive officer. “Any successful and sustainable recovery must involve the business sector.”
Donohue says his group is also prepared to play a role in the transition process. “We will offer our policy ideas, access to our many domestic and international experts, and views on key appointees,” he says. “We are absolutely committed to a continuity of government during this critical period for our country and, thus, will support quick confirmation of nominees to sensitive posts related to our national, homeland, and economic security.”
OTHER INDUSTRY GROUPS are also offering advice to the president-elect. William E. Allmond, director of government relations at the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA), says his group wants to work with the new Administration and with legislative leaders “on a bipartisan basis, where possible, to achieve industry priorities.” These include the adoption of more market-opening international trade agreements and enactment of a permanent chemical plant security law that avoids a mandate for inherently safer technologies.
John Engler, president of the trade group National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), says the Obama Administration must take steps to revitalize the economy, address the credit crunch, and boost manufacturing. “Our nation is in a financial crisis that is discouraging investment and consumption,” Engler says. “Manufacturers are severely impacted by the credit squeeze. Companies with solid balance sheets, good credit histories, and order backlogs cannot obtain routine financing. There is no question that we face daunting challenges ahead.”
Noting that Illinois, where Obama was senator, is an industrial state, Engler says the president-elect “understands the importance of manufacturing and what’s good for jobs and the economy overall.” NAM wants the incoming Administration to support increased offshore oil and gas production, expansion of nuclear power, and utilization of renewable energy resources—such as wind, solar, and geothermal—to diversify the nation’s energy supply.
As Engler and other observers know, energy policy will be a key element in the new Obama Administration and will likely be one of the areas to receive immediate attention. The president-elect’s emphasis on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and spurring renewable energy development in the U.S. ensures a transformation in energy generation and use. It will lead to new winners and losers in the world of electricity and fuels. Because of Obama’s outright embrace of energy’s importance, his Administration has heard from a wide spectrum of groups angling to influence the views of his transition team.
Although the details of their proposals differ, groups as divergent as the industry-funded USCC and the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) are calling for an aggressive federal energy program. The two groups urge the creation in the White House of a new high-ranking office to coordinate energy issues within the federal government.
USCC also issued a plan to double energy R&D spending while increasing development of nuclear, clean-coal, and oil and gas energy production. It also seeks comprehensive energy legislation to be enacted by the new Administration and Congress within Obama’s first year in office.
CAP also issued a “blueprint” for Obama’s Administration. The recommendations are likely to carry significant weight because the think tank was founded by John D. Podesta, who leads Obama’s transition team, and is made up of many Obama transition officials.
Like USCC, CAP also wants speedy action and urged Obama to stress energy issues in his first State of the Union Address and to propose energy and climate-change legislation within his first 100 days in office.
Although the details of a new energy policy haven’t been released, prior to the election, Obama said that he would require 25% of U.S. electricity to be derived from renewable sources by 2025. He has underscored the jobs that would be created through renewable energy projects.
RENEWABLE ENERGY would also be encouraged by Obama through his plan to increase tax credits for renewable energy sources. He is likely to get plenty of support in this effort from solar, geothermal, wind, and other segments of the renewable energy industry.
In a recent briefing, industry officials from this sector urged Obama to provide $30 billion in financial aid to the industry. This is twice the $15 billion that the president-elect has promised for catalyzing private industry efforts to develop new energy sources, singling out solar, wind, biofuels, clean-coal, and nuclear power for support.
Pointing to the financial crisis, the industry officials said investment funding for new projects has become increasingly difficult to come by. They added that the recently extended tax credits were not having the desired result in stimulating new renewable energy projects because companies that would be expected to seek the tax credits were financially strapped.
The renewable energy industry officials instead urged direct government payments rather than tax credits, which might prove difficult for Congress during a time of financial chaos. However, they hope benefits to their industry will flow from Obama’s support of national renewable energy standards and a CO2 cap-and-trade program that should cut CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and further reduce CO2 by 80% of that level by 2050.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s largest lobbying group, also supports a national energy policy and sees an opportunity for such a policy to help the chemical industry. “In the last Congress, one of the few things that received significant bipartisan support was increasing our country’s energy security by increasing our domestic energy supply,” ACC President and CEO Calvin M. Dooley says.
“We’re hopeful that one of the first priorities of the Obama Administration and the congressional leadership will be to put together and advance a comprehensive energy proposal that builds upon the lifting of the moratorium on outer continental shelf oil and natural gas development,” says Dooley, who is also a former Democratic congressman.
In July, President Bush lifted a long-standing executive order that banned drilling in most U.S. coastal areas, and a congressional moratorium expired on Sept. 30. Obama has said he would support a limited expansion of offshore drilling if it were part of a compromise that would promote renewable energy and energy conservation.
Dooley says a national energy policy should allow coastal states to share in the revenues that result from new offshore oil and gas production, make investments in clean-coal technology, and promote greater conservation and energy efficiency. “That’s one area where we are very hopeful that Congress will act quickly,” he says.
INTERLACED WITH any energy policy will be climate-change policy. And just what the new Administration’s policy should be is the topic of advice given by many environmental and public-interest advocacy groups.
For instance, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), a think tank that advocates for greater protections for health, safety, and the environment, wants Obama to issue a pair of executive orders related to global warming. One order would require all federal agencies to measure and report their emissions of greenhouse gases and then reduce those releases. CPR suggests a second order directing all federal agencies to consider the climate-change-related implications of all their major activities. Those activities range from setting corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicles to selecting a site for a new facility in a low-lying coastal area projected to become increasingly vulnerable to floods.
Another group that is calling for action on climate change is Earthjustice. The advocacy organization, which represents other environmental groups in court, is calling on the new Administration to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act. In addition, Earthjustice is urging the Obama Administration to reverse a December 2007 decision by current EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson that prevents California from regulating greenhouse gases from new cars and trucks.
Another government-wide directive sought by CPR would instruct agencies to protect children from exposure to toxic substances. The group wants Obama to order agencies to develop plans to protect children from exposure to several substances or groups of chemicals: lead, a neurotoxic metal in the paint in many older dwellings; mercury, a neurotoxic metal that builds up in the tissue of fish caught for food; perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel; phthalates, which are used as additives in plastics; fine particulate matter; ground-level ozone; and pesticides.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, also has several specific changes related to the regulation of chemicals, specifically by EPA, that it would like the president-elect to consider.
GAO wants a rule requiring chemical makers to give EPA the same health and safety data they would provide to the European Union under the new REACH regime, which stands for the Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals. GAO suggests this change should apply broadly to data submitted to any foreign government on the chemicals a company makes or processes in or imports into the U.S.
In addition, GAO wants EPA to require chemical companies to reassert claims of confidentiality attached to the data they submit to the agency. Currently, once a company claims information—ranging from the names of chemicals to the identity of the company—as proprietary, the data remain protected from public view unless EPA successfully challenges the assertion. GAO says that after several years have passed, the information should automatically become public unless chemical makers again put forth claims of confidentiality.
Meanwhile, SOCMA is urging incoming Obama appointees to maintain and strengthen an EPA program that the Bush Administration launched in 2007, SOCMA’s Allmond says. Under the Chemical Assessment & Management Program, EPA plans to assess, by 2012, the risks posed by more than 9,000 chemicals with U.S. production volumes of at least 25,000 lb per year. The effort relies heavily on data that chemical makers are supplying to the agency voluntarily for high-production-volume substances.
According to Allmond, SOCMA also plans to work closely with Obama’s EPA appointees as the agency finalizes a rule to tighten emissions standards at smaller chemical plants that process, use, or produce any of 15 hazardous air pollutants (C&EN, Oct. 6, page 26). SOCMA says the rule, which the Bush Administration proposed in September, would be extremely expensive for many smaller chemical companies.
Another regulatory agency that will undoubtedly be on the Obama agenda is FDA. In the wake of the biggest Salmonella bacteria outbreak in decades, milk products and pet food contaminated with melamine, and adulterated heparin blood-thinning drugs, the Obama Administration is expected to support reform at the agency.
WHETHER THAT REFORM is just a small tweak or a complete overhaul of the agency will depend on whom Obama picks as FDA commissioner, observers say. Although most people expect more protection of public health under Obama than under the current Administration, “I don’t think you are going to see a tidal wave,” says William K. Hubbard, former senior associate commissioner of FDA and an outspoken critic of the agency since he retired.
Regarding food safety, the next Administration is likely to work with Congress to give FDA the authority to recall contaminated food products and provide a traceability system for determining the origin of contaminated food, Hubbard predicts. High on the list of priorities for the next Administration will also be to give FDA more import authority, he adds. Such authority would put more responsibility on the exporter to prove that an exported product is safe.
GAO is also calling for action on food safety, citing it as an urgent issue for the next Administration. “Currently, 15 agencies administer over 30 food safety laws,” Lisa R. Shames, director of natural resources and environment at GAO, says in a video message on GAO’s website. “This fragmented system has caused ineffective coordination, inconsistent oversight, and inefficient use of resources.” GAO recommends “comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation; a reconvened Food Safety Council; a results-oriented government-wide performance plan; and a review of alternative organizational food safety structures,” Shames notes.
Another priority item identified by GAO involves the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Specifically, GAO says the Obama Administration must make a decision about whether to retire the space shuttle in 2010 as currently planned or to extend its three-decade-long service.
For his part, Obama has pledged to establish a robust and balanced space program but has not disclosed specific details about the shuttle program. One thing Obama has said is that he will establish a National Aeronautics & Space Council. According to the president-elect, the council will “oversee and coordinate civilian, military, commercial, and national security space activities. It will solicit public participation, engage the international community, and work toward a 21st-century vision of space that constantly pushes the envelope on new technologies as it pursues a balanced national portfolio that expands our reach into the heavens and improves life here on Earth.”
The next Administration will also need to decide whether existing regulations at multiple agencies are sufficient for dealing with emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and genetically engineered food animals. Many people are calling for more government oversight of such technologies because of their potential risks to human health and the environment. Observers say they expect the next Administration to strengthen the federal government’s commitment to environmental, health, and safety research, particularly with respect to nanomaterials (C&EN, Aug. 11, page 35).
Denise Caruso, executive director and cofounder of San Francisco-based Hybrid Vigor Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving, spoke at a recent event about the need for an adaptive regulatory system—one that evolves as new scientific information becomes available.
“I would encourage the people who are thinking about science policy in Obama’s Administration to think about a broader view of what ‘evidence based’ means,” Caruso said. Scientists need to think more about uncertainty in terms of setting policy, she added. “If you can come up with a way that’s palatable to include uncertainty in that conversation, then automatically, you come up with adaptive regulation,” Caruso said.
ONE PRIORITY that’s sure to find its way to the top of the new Administration’s list is protecting the nation. Making a seamless transition from the Bush Administration is essential because “terrorists often try to take advantage of transition,” says Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan nonprofit center.
Rojansky tells C&EN that the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 includes authorization for a new coordinator for weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism that remains unfilled under the Bush Administration. He says the Obama Administration should fill that spot. It’s not enough to merely create a new title and job description, Rojansky says. “The critical need is for a top official who has the full support of the President and the authority to guide government-wide decisions on funding and programs,” he adds.
CAP also has ideas to improve homeland security. Specifically, CAP published a report in November that identified 300-plus chemical facilities that could cause massive casualties if they were targeted for a terrorist attack or if they experienced an accident (C&EN, Nov. 24, page 10). The report goes on to recommend that action be taken to encourage these facilities to employ safer technologies.
Report author Paul Orum pointed out in a teleconference that national security is a priority for Obama. With this in mind, recommendations from Orum’s report might influence the new Administration to push for inherently safer technologies as part of its national security policy to replace the existing interim Department of Homeland Security rules set to expire in October 2009.
The wide range of groups coming forward to share their ideas for science-and-technology-related policies that they believe will be on the new agenda shows just how much excitement there is around the U.S. for the new Administration—an Administration that holds the promise of better days for science.
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