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Science under eight years of Obama

The President supported science while Congress limited progress of his initiatives

November 21, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 46


Obama talking to young girls about their science projects.
Credit: White House
Obama started the White House Science Fair, where he met with young scientists, including these Girl Scouts.

As early as his inaugural address in January 2009, President Barack Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” in government. He expressed support for science throughout the eight years of his presidency, promoting the importance of science and proposing new programs, especially in the areas of energy and climate change.

But Obama’s science legacy is mixed, in large part because of the outcome of budget battles with Congress that prevented him from boosting science funding.

Even before he was inaugurated, Obama set a precedent by choosing top scientists for key posts, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to lead the Department of Energy. He also restored the high-level role of the Office of Science & Technology Policy, which had been downgraded under President George W. Bush’s Administration. OSTP’s leader, physicist John Holdren, has been a direct adviser to the President during both of Obama’s terms. The OSTP director did not report to the President during Bush’s Administration.

The President has defended science in an atmosphere where there is increasing anti-intellectualism, including attacks from the Hill.
Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities

“I think Holdren really had the ear of the President on science issues and wasn’t just a figurehead,” says Anthony Pitagno, director of advocacy for the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.

One of Obama’s first acts in office was to overturn the Bush Administration’s ban on using federal money to support stem cell research. And science funding was part of a major fiscal stimulus package Obama signed a month after he became the nation’s chief executive.

Later that spring, Obama spoke before the National Academy of Sciences and proposed new federal science programs. He was especially enthusiastic about climate change and energy research, including starting up the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy within DOE.

For the chemical industry, reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was the defining change that came during Obama Administration, says Jennifer Abril, president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates. Though reform was pushed by Congress, Obama supported bipartisan efforts to revise the law.

“Signing TSCA reform into law was a truly historic moment in a particularly divided legislature,” she says. “We believe passage of TSCA reform will enhance regulatory certainty, as well as public confidence in the specialty chemical industry.”

Obama often used his bully pulpit in an attempt to expand the public’s support for science. He invited a far larger number of scientists to the White House than previous administrations. And he inaugurated the highly visible White House Science Fair.

Most important, for some, was Obama’s public defense of scientific principles. “The President has defended science in an atmosphere where there is increasing anti-intellectualism, including attacks from the Hill,” says Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.

The bitter relationship between the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House stifled many of Obama’s ambitious plans for new research programs. Despite this animosity, a few of the president’s initiatives—such as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and the Brain Initiative—managed to win congressional funding, albeit at lower levels than Obama had proposed. Others, such as the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot, are just getting started. The fate of all of these initiatives is unclear under the new Donald Trump Administration.

The worst hit for science during Obama’s tenure was arguably a failed budget agreement in 2013 that resulted in sequestration, 10 years of planned budget cuts across both defense and nondefense programs such as science. While never fully implemented, those cuts have still resulted in some of the lowest science grant funding rates in years, especially at the National Institutes of Health.

While the budget cuts have been hard on science, Smith says, the Administration had many positives for science as well. “I’m always one to tell the science community it could have been a lot worse.”—Andrea Widener

Industrial Safety

Promised safety overhaul has not yet materialized

Credit: White House/Sipa USA/Newscom
Obama spoke at a service for those who died in the 2013 explosion of a fertilizer storage facility in Texas.
Photo shows President Barack Obama standing with his eyes closed next to Michelle Obama and a man in uniform wiping tears from one of his eye.
Credit: White House/Sipa USA/Newscom
Obama spoke at a service for those who died in the 2013 explosion of a fertilizer storage facility in Texas.

Within months of appearing before a line of coffins at a 2013 memorial service, President Obama issued a directive intended to catalyze a sweeping overhaul of U.S. chemical industry safety regulations. The memorial service and his executive order came after 15 emergency responders and residents were killed in an explosion of a retail agricultural supply warehouse in the small town of West, Texas.

Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration to examine and reform safety regulations, and he set a tight deadline for action.

But now more than three years later, the government has proposed just one significant regulation—and critics say it is too modest. Industry groups, meanwhile, have challenged the proposal’s constitutionality.

Federal officials, however, say their three-year review has improved communications among emergency responders and state and federal officials.

The cause of the Texas accident was detonation of ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer. The deaths were due to inadequate safety regulations and a lack of information that might have aided emergency responders as they charged into the burning warehouse. The intergovernmental review resulted in voluntary efforts but no regulations affecting ammonium nitrate.

Community organizations and union leaders are disappointed, saying they had hoped the directive would encourage major reforms of EPA’s risk management program and OSHA’s process safety management regulation, both of which are 25 years old.

The impact of the one regulatory proposal that advanced is unclear. It is still undergoing review and is not expected to be finalized until December as Obama leaves office. It would modify EPA’s risk management program that is aimed at preventing accidental releases of hazardous chemicals and lessening harm from releases that do occur. OSHA officials say a similar change for the process safety management standard is six to eight years away.

“The federal government acknowledges at least 150 industrial accidents occur annually,” says Rick Hind, a member of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, an organization of some 120 unions and community groups. “These agencies are just gambling that a major accident does not take place on their watch.”—Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN


Door opened to U.S.-Cuba collaboration

Credit: Shutterstock
The National Academy of Science of Cuba.
Credit: Shutterstock

By reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than a half-century, President Obama opened the door for scientific cooperation between the U.S. and the island nation a mere 145 km away. In the wake of this move, the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, is exploring possible collaborations on science and education with institutions in Cuba. —Cheryl Hogue

Nuclear Power

Administration reconsidered waste storage options

Volcanic ridge Yucca Mountain seen from above.
Credit: Department of Energy
Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada was for decades the site of a proposed geologic repository for nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste that many expected to head to a repository in Nevada remains on-site at nuclear power plants throughout the U.S. after years of political wrangling.

Though the Obama Administration has taken up new initiatives, such as its community-focused consent-based siting program, experts say a national program for nuclear waste hasn’t advanced during the President’s two terms.

Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge that formed millions of years ago in present-day Nevada, is about 160 km northwest of Las Vegas. Since the 1980s, it has been the proposed site for deep geologic disposal of nuclear waste in the U.S.

The Department of Energy submitted a license application for Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008 under the George W. Bush Administration. Two years later, in its fiscal 2011 budget request, the Obama Administration said Yucca Mountain “is not a workable option for a nuclear waste repository.” DOE then moved to withdraw its application.

Obama’s Administration created a special task force to develop an alternative nuclear waste policy. In 2012, the final report from that panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, made three key recommendations: a consent-based process to find a new site for permanent waste disposal, centralized facilities for interim nuclear waste storage, and a new federal agency dedicated to nuclear waste management.

In response to the report, Congress considered legislation related to interim storage and federal management of nuclear waste and DOE kicked off its consent-based siting initiative in early 2016.

Citing political challenges rather than technical ones, Everett Redmond, senior director of fuel cycle and technology policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, says the movement in recent years is not action. Instead, it is reaction to the nation’s nuclear waste program grinding to a halt after Obama moved to cease funding it.

“It does seem like a lot of action, but it’s not a lot of movement in terms of advancing the [nuclear waste] program,” he tells C&EN. “We’re still without a program right now.”—Jessica Morrison

Research Funding

Credit: NASA
Man reaching his hand into a glove box.
Credit: NASA

Prizes helped push envelope of research

The Obama Administration vastly expanded the use of prizes to fund science during the President’s tenure in office. As compared with traditional grants, observers say that prizes spur innovation by bringing in a wider array of people to work on problems that affect the nation. Plus, the government doesn’t have to pay unless an award-winning technology meets defined criteria. NASA was a leader in this area, awarding prizes for environmentally friendly airplanes and mapping its treasure trove of climate data. But most agencies got involved.—Andrea Widener


Scientific integrity policies created at federal agencies

Interference in federal science was a documented problem during President George W. Bush’s ­Administration. Federal publications were sometimes edited by nonscientists to remove or change scientific content. Government scientists often weren’t allowed to talk to news reporters about their work. Climate change research was particularly at risk because it was politically charged in an Administration skeptical of the science around human-caused global warming.

When President Obama entered office, he vowed to change the situation. Just months after he took office, Obama required that each science agency create a scientific integrity policy.

What that meant wasn’t clear until presidential science adviser John Holdren released a memo to 21 science agencies in December 2010. Holdren required that the policies include ways to improve the use of scientific information within government, clear guidelines on how federal scientists can interact with the news media and the larger scientific community, and rules for how scientific advisers are recruited or their advice conveyed.

The plans were slow in coming, but by the end of 2014, 18 agencies had final plans in place and four more had released draft plans.

Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the plans don’t eliminate every possibility of political interference. “It takes a long time to change agency culture,” she says. Even so, “there are a lot more safeguards in place” than when Obama took office.—Andrea Widener

Climate change

Credit: Francis Dean/Dean Pictures/Newscom

Demonstrators at the 2009 international climate change meeting in Copenhagen riffed off Obama’s 2008 campaign image.
Photo shows a demonstrator in Copenhagen holding a sign with an image of U.S. President Barak Obama and the word “Hope-nhagen.”
Credit: Francis Dean/Dean Pictures/Newscom

Demonstrators at the 2009 international climate change meeting in Copenhagen riffed off Obama’s 2008 campaign image.

President acted to curb greenhouse gases

Throughout his presidency, Obama was a strong proponent of action to stave off human-caused climate change.

His most visible move arguably was in 2009, as negotiations on a climate change deal were foundering at the close of a pivotal global meeting in Copenhagen.

En route to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Obama stopped in Copenhagen. He assembled a small group of world leaders, short-circuiting the official negotiating process. What emerged was a deal that laid the groundwork for a climate accord involving greenhouse gas emission controls by all countries of the world.

Completion of that global accord was expected by 2010 but didn’t come to fruition until 2015, in the form of the Paris Agreement.

Obama helped push the Paris Agreement into reality by forging a key political partnership with China, the country that annually releases the most greenhouse gases. The U.S., historically the world’s largest emitter, now ranks second on an annual basis.


Obama’s negotiators also successfully insisted that the Paris accord be not legally binding. This meant Obama did not need to gain approval from the Republican-controlled Senate that opposes controls on greenhouse gas emissions. Obama said the U.S. can meet its obligations through existing regulations.

Critics, however, pointed out that a future President could easily reject the Paris Agreement and, possibly given time, undo Obama’s greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act. President-Elect Donald Trump has pledged to do just that.—Cheryl Hogue

Fossil Fuels

Natural gas production got a boost

A fracking operation in foreground with house in distance.
Credit: Newscom

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft report assessing the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on U.S. water supplies was met with mixed reviews.

U.S. production and consumption of natural gas grew to record levels during the Obama Administration, significantly benefiting the chemical industry.

In his first term, Obama looked to decrease U.S. reliance on foreign energy by opening up offshore oil and gas supplies. In later years, however, the Administration moved to restrict the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing on federal lands.

With the natural gas boom came concerns about the environmental effects of fracking. This extraction technique involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and a proprietary fracking fluid underground to release oil or gas trapped in rock formations. The oil and gas industry contends that the practice is safe and has not contaminated drinking water supplies.

At the behest of Congress in 2009, EPA began to study the relationship between the hydraulic fracturing cycle and potential drinking water contamination. In 2015, the agency released a draft report finding no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” to U.S. drinking water resources associated with fracking.

As the findings drew mixed reviews from industry and environmental groups, EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board found fault with the agency’s vague language in the draft report. The document is still undergoing agency review.

“It’s a mixed bag,” says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, of Obama’s legacy on fracking. Mall argues that environmental protections related to fracking improved during the Obama Administration compared with the Administration of President George W. Bush. But, she says, “we’re still suing the Obama Administration for doing things that we think violate the law.”—Jessica Morrison


Credit: Shutterstock
Obama took action to boost honeybee habitats, but did not restrict the use of harmful neonicotinoid pesticides.
A honeybee in a flower.
Credit: Shutterstock
Obama took action to boost honeybee habitats, but did not restrict the use of harmful neonicotinoid pesticides.

Pollinator protection plan failed to address neonicotinoids

Environmental activists cheered in 2014 when President Obama directed leaders from USDA, EPA, and other federal agencies to create a national strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. But when the plan was released in 2015, environmental activists criticized the Administration for not restricting the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Three neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—have been blamed for harming bees. The Administration’s plan instead focused on restoring millions of acres of land for pollinator habitat by 2020.—Britt Erickson

Public Health

White House battled antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Credit: Shutterstock
Environmental activists criticized the White House for not addressing the use of antibiotics for disease prevention in crowded animal production facilities.
A crowded pigs in large scale operation.
Credit: Shutterstock
Environmental activists criticized the White House for not addressing the use of antibiotics for disease prevention in crowded animal production facilities.

President Obama called for all hands on deck across the federal government and beyond to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

These deadly germs are associated with an estimated 23,000 deaths and 2 million infections in people each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The Obama Administration calls the situation a “growing crisis” and a threat to national security and the economy.

The White House first described its strategy to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 2014. It followed up in 2015 with a national action plan that seeks to cut the incidence of the deadliest infections in the U.S. in half by 2020. The plan targets the unnecessary use of antibiotics on farms and in hospitals. The plan also calls for enhanced surveillance of antimicrobial resistance using genetic sequencing technologies and aims to accelerate the development of new antibiotics and diagnostics.

Obama proposed nearly doubling the amount of federal funding to combat and prevent antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion in fiscal 2016. The amount that was enacted in fiscal 2016, however, was $793 million, split among several federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health, CDC, and the Food & Drug Administration. The Administration also offered a $20 million prize for the development of a rapid test that can identify highly resistant bacterial infections in patients.

Environmental and public health groups praise the plan’s focus on detection and prevention of drug-resistant infections, as well as its emphasis on eliminating the use of medically important antibiotics to promote growth in animals raised for food.

But many groups and some congressional lawmakers say the plan does not go far enough to curb the routine use of antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy farm animals.—Britt Erickson


Open access expanded across government

The public’s right to see publications resulting from federally funded research has been contentious for decades. Open access advocates say that the results of such research should be immediately and freely available to the public. Publishers say that they need people to pay for access to support the peer review process.

The Obama Administration decided to enter the fray in December 2009 when the Office of Science & Technology Policy asked for comments on a federal open access policy that would require the largest research agencies to make their funded publications public. Previously, the National Institutes of Health was the only federal agency that required open access.

In February 2013, the Administration issued a plan that required all agencies that fund more than $100 million in research to design an open access policy for publicly funded research publications and any accompanying data within a year after publication.

The policies were due within a year, but every agency took much longer than that to complete one. The Department of Energy was the first, in August 2014. DOE created a database where researchers could either link to published versions of papers or upload their final manuscripts if a free version wasn’t available. Policies trickled out in the years since, with the most recent released this fall.—Andrea Widener

Forensic science

Credit: Shutterstock
Two gloved hands getting a fingerprint off of a piece of a glass slide.
Credit: Shutterstock

False starts to reform forensic science

In 2009, the same year President Obama took office, a National Academy of Sciences committee found that there was little science underlying forensic science. The interagency National Science & Technology Council failed to recommend any reforms for years. However, in 2013, the Justice Department and the National Institute of Standards & Technology created a forensic sciences oversight panel designed to propose changes in judiciary policy and identify research challenges. NIST also created an organization that will set standards and guidelines to improve the consistency and reliability of forensic science.—Andrea Widener

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Jan. 10, 2017, to reflect that offices of the Cuban Academy of Sciences are no longer in the building shown in the photograph, the Cuban National Capitol Building.


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