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December 23rd, 2008
08:08 AM ET

Obama’s Science Team: Reshaping Our Long-Term Future

David Gergen | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

In coming months, public attention will heavily focus on the performance of Barack Obama’s economic and national security teams, but over the long haul, his new team in science and technology could do even more to shape the country’s future. They will arrive not a moment too soon.

Over the past seven plus years, many leaders in the science and technology community feel they have been in a virtual war with the Bush administration. They despaired, as one told me this weekend, that “no one was ever home” and that the Bush team was so dismissive of key scientific research that it threatened our future.

In a brief capsule, here are some of their key complaints:.

  • The President and the men around him have been so ideologically opposed to the idea of man-made global warming that they first put their heads in the sand, refusing to accept evidence and editing reports from scientists inside the government such as the EPA, sending morale down the tubes. More recently, President Bush has acknowledged that man has contributed to warming, but the U.S. continues to drag its feet in international negotiations and Bush has resisted mandatory emission standards.
  • Top scientific leaders in the administration have sometimes been silenced, including a top NASA climate scientist James Hansen and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. A number of government scientists have resigned.
  • The President twice vetoed bills for stem cell research over the objections of many in the scientific community as well as Bill Frist, the cardio-surgeon who was a GOP leader in the Senate.
  • The President allowed funding for the National Science Foundation to go essentially flat and after sizable increases, also allowed a flattening of the budget for the National Institutes of Health.
  • The President did sign onto the competitiveness agenda proposed by a special commission of the national academies of science and engineering – and he helped to secure Congressional passage of legislation endorsing the agenda. But, stunningly, the Congress refused to fund it – and the President put up very little fight.
  • This November, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science publicly lambasted the administration for putting unqualified political appointees into permanent civil service jobs that make scientific policy decisions. A case in point: Todd Harding, a 30-year old with a bachelor’s degree from Kentucky’s Centre College, was named to a permanent post at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration working on space-spaced science for geostationary and meteorological data.
  • Even as some positions were filled with non-entities, the White House left vacant the post of Executive Director for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the scientific community began rallying to Barack Obama months ago. Periodically, Dr. Harold Varmus, now chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering, convened informal conference calls among leading scientists to provide counsel to the Obama campaign, and they also met with Obama for a morning of conversation in Pennsylvania.

This past Saturday, Obama began filling out his appointments to his science and technology team, and it is a star-studded cast, promising a sharp break with the Bush administration. Among those who will be surrounding him are a physicist who has won a Nobel Prize (Steven Chu), a physicist and top expert on global warming who will be his top science adviser in the White House (John Holdren), a chemical engineer who has won acclaim for as an environmental leader in New Jersey (Lisa Jackson), a marine biologist is a leading expert on the impact of global warming on the oceans (Jane Lubchenco),. a polymath who heads up one of the most important genome projects in the country (Eric Lander), and a biologist who won a Nobel prize in medicine (Varmus). It doesn’t get any better than that!

For at least half a century, America has been the world’s premier nation for scientific and technological research. Remaining at the cutting edge is not only important for the advancement of knowledge, but it is also critical – absolutely critical - for the creation of high-powered jobs and meeting the challenges of global warming. In his Internet address on Saturday, Obama said, “It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.” He’s right – it is none too soon to call off the war and build a strong, new alliance between government and science. .


Filed under: Barack Obama • David Gergen • Raw Politics • T1
soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Joe

    Finally. The Dark Ages are once again coming to an end.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm |
  2. John

    Conservatives have their use, they ride the brakes while progressive people respond to the simple truth that things change, and one has to change with them or become extinct. Oh yes, things change, whether one likes it or not. The planet ages, new discoveries are made, the population expands in proportion to and because of human successes.

    I have been horrified the last 8 years. It will be nice to see anything resembling sanity guiding our political power.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:45 pm |
  3. Lisa

    Perhaps this unparalleled team of scientists can illuminate for all the nay-sayers that have had Bush and his "head-in-the-sand" gang supporting their ignorance and denial that global warming can indeed cause the extremes of weather we have been witnessing around the world for the last decade. Global warming does not necessarily mean that the temperature in your little corner of the world will increase noticeably. It means the average of the globe's temperature will increase – which is already creating stronger hurricanes, desertification and changes in the jet stream and ocean currents. I would like to suggest that Obama's team of scientists convene a once-weekly television program that will tackle a different aspect of science each week. Since Americans insist on believing what they see on TV, perhaps this vehicle can be used to set the record straight and to enlist the support of the populace to heal the wounds we have inflicted upon our Earth.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:45 pm |
  4. DQF

    The human race reserves perhaps its biggest scorn and disgust for animals who fowl their nests. Look in the mirror humans! It is going to be expensive to clean up the mess that we are putting ourselves in but it will be more expensive the longer we wait. Indeed, if we wait too long we may hit a tipping point where no amount of effort or money can fix it. Hopefully this new team will inspire the nation to do the right things fand clean up our only nest.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:44 pm |
  5. Shaun G

    At least one of the points Mr. Gergen mentions is not a squabble over science but over bioethics.

    The Bush administration's opposition to embryonic stem cell research is a matter of ethics. You can agree or disagree that it is unethical to kill embryos for the sake of research, but you can't say that it's fundamentally a scientific disagreement.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Vishal

    Science and technological innovation made america the great country it is. However we have now been dominated by emerging countries who value science and math much more than we do now, which is a contributing factor to america's decline.

    schools need to stress math and science much more than they do now and it starts with an executive administration that values science and its search for the truth.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Ben Stein

    Uh, science caused the holocaust. Scientists made the gas chambers. Science is bad. I ain't come from no monkey! God made me and everything there is, not only that, but I know HOW he did it cuz the Bible says so in real plain English, and if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me! Science is the devil and Obama is the anti-christ, long live Bush!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Marty

    So, now we can bow to the god of science. How exciting... I can hardly wait, NOT!! Micro evolution may be a fact of life, as in different varieties of dogs, but macro evolution, dogs becoming horses, that is just too ridiculous to believe. And where are the facts for that one? Any, repeat, ANY fossil evidence of half dog half horse out there? No? Just what I thought. And any living evidence of one specie becoming another completely different specie? No? Just what I thought. Enjoy your god of science and let me enjoy the one, true God of the universe, the Creator God.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:43 pm |
  9. Marc M

    Man-Made global warming is a myth and a hoax that solely exists for groups to get their hands on grant money and to bolster their own agendas.

    The earth has been icefree before, when man didn't exist. When man wasn't an industrial society. How can you blame man for what has happened before when they weren't here?

    The earth has cooled every single year since 1999.

    Man is only responsible for under half of a percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

    Oceans are CO2 scrubbers that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

    Whether the earth warms or not, it is not because of man's activities. Any sensible, logical look at the facts dictates that simple fact.

    Sadly so many are brainwashed that this hysteria is going to snowball and cause economic depressions where there doesn't have to be.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Jeff - Massachusetts

    January 20, 2009 can't come soon enough. Thank you, David Gergen, for putting this in perspective.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:42 pm |
  11. Robert -Philadelphia

    Thank you David Gergen! For years this administration, has been quietly destroying inroads of our scientific community going with political appointees who just did not do anything. Science is why our counrty went to the moon, invented unlimited tools for mankind, saved lives in operating rooms and discovered drugs to help mankind. Under Bush and his zealots, we have gone intentionally backwards. Why are these people not being prosecuted for negligent performance of their work? Why are they in positions without any qualifications? We can only hope PE Obama weeds these useless entities out of their position and puts the right people back in so we can once again lead the world in science and technology!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:42 pm |
  12. Tyler

    Creationism vs. Evolution is not a scientific debate. Macroevolution and religion are faith. See Darwin's writings on the subject. Not that I do not respect the human pursuit of truth, but come on, we are no closer to knowing what's going on than 150 years ago. Answers only reveal more mysteries.

    Also, while I'm glad we will be stepping out of the dark ages of the Bush administration, all of these "mankind is the problem" global warming appointments are disconcerting. Hopefully that fear will be unrealized and we won't be swimming in carbon taxes.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:41 pm |
  13. Vincent Petrosino

    David Gergen is always clear, concise and factual. His commentaries on CNN are like beacons of light on any topic. Finally, science and technology will assume its rightful place in American government and try to undo the damage created by Bush, the GOP, and most of all right-wing religious conservatives. Favorite David Gergen moment:
    During the last election, David Gergen was asked how McCain could make up the deficit he had suffered during the campaign especially after his faux-pas of trying to cancel the first debate. Gergen answered blithely "Hell if I know!" You go, David!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:41 pm |
  14. Donna Ramirez

    THANK GOD!!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:41 pm |
  15. Ed Tallahassee FL

    Science! Change we can believe in!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm |
  16. Jim B.

    Can we have it both ways? Can we have a massive economic rescue plan, and have plenty of money for the advancement of science (not only in the laboratory, but in the classroom!) ?

    Can we do it? Can we provide medical care for every American, ensure a quality education for our children, recreate the millions of jobs (and then some!) lost these past few years, while ensuring the safety of America from those who want to destroy us?

    In truth, I don't think "Can we do it?" is even a question. Instead, we must in one loud voice boldly proclaim, "We must do it, and we must not fail!!!"

    December 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Luis, Seattle

    Hopefully the next step is to remove the myth of "intelligent design" that was dispursed in the educational system of the past 8 years.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm |
  18. Jason

    "I would love to see Obama declare the truth once and for all: Evolution is a fact of all life."

    Yes. Because Obama declaring this would bring an end to all discussion. PLEASE.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:38 pm |
  19. Michael in San Diego

    This kinds of articles frighten me. I'm glad the Obama administration will make strides to improve the science-environment in this country but he won't be in office forever and I don't think that one or even two terms will be able to reverse the damage done by the current administration. I just hope Obama is the "start" of something new for this country or we're in for a very tough future. I give him the benefit of the doubt but I hope people understand that Obama can lay down the foundation for a brighter future but there are always the "Sarah Palin's" of the world lurking around the corner who don't believe in global warming and are looking to exploit any mistakes Obama might make to take us back into the scientific dark ages where making quick bucks trumps science.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:37 pm |
  20. Charles L. Adams

    How long can our industrial-based prosperity survive now that the global warming liars and idiots are in charge? James Hansen is a proven member of both groups (liar and idiot). As the globe freezes down these fools will continue to propagate the global warming myth. They will, if allowed, destroy our energy industries and consequently our economy that supports a growing mass of social parasites. How will the parasites have their houses air conditioned, their bellys filled and their health care provided after our industrial base collapses? Wind freaking mills?

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  21. nebi

    great observation Davide, you always tell the truth keep up the good work.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  22. Citizen

    It is about time we get back on the right track and let science help lead this nation to a brighter future. President Bush has been horrible for the U.S. in so many ways.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  23. Dave

    Once again,David Gergen's comentary is spot on! Obama is keeping his promise to appoint brightest,the best,the most educated people without political ideologies.That certainly wasn't the case in the last eight years.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  24. Don Mattox

    It will be nice to have scientist around President Obama who know the difference between Speculation – Hypothesis – Theory – Proven Fact. As for global warming I suggest your readers go to: U.S. Senate Minority Report: "More than 650 International Scientist Dissent over Man-made Global Warming Claims" by Senator InHofe.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  25. Njeri

    Great work Obama!!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  26. Ursula

    What is science? LOL just kidding!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  27. Jim Boulter

    Finally ... an informed and cogent voice from the wilderness.

    Go science!!!!!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm |
  28. Jim W

    Anyone who mentions "science" and "man-made global warming" in the same sentence doesn't have any credibility, Mr. Gergen.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  29. abrams-seattle

    ...and you can have a beer with a scientist, too!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  30. Scientist

    Top scientists haven't been silenced by the administration, it has been silenced by the media promoting global warming for their own agendas. The junk science that they have been promoting will do more damage in the long run to our economy and our lives.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  31. Colin

    Really we need to just label Bush in the way he already labeled himself, an obsessive evangelical christian. There is no arguing with these people because most of them don't even understand concepts such as 'logic' or 'reason', things that the rest of us take for granted. They see the world through a starry-eyed "God will save everything yeaayyy!!!" mentality. I predict that if we continue on the same trend we are currently on, America's downfall will not linked simply to Bush and his religiosity, but to the entire evangelical christian movement and the moderate christians that allow for the hardcores to have the power that they do.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  32. cameragirl

    I love David Gergen and that he is not a typical talking head but a real scholar. Also, I am pleased to know that science will have a place in government again. Thank goodness someone believes that intelligence is NOT a disease....for once.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  33. Sherrye

    As an NIH researcher, I can tell you medical research has not suffered like this in over 15 years. Bush cut the NIH budget so horribly that we lost a generation of bright and ambitious scientists. (Under Clinton, roughly the top %16 of grant applications were funded, while under Bush, it has been reduced to roughly 7%.... a level too competitive to sustain even the best and most productive laboratories). I hope Obama's administration will invest in the remaining hardy few who survived Bush.... including me. Without a drastic and sudden increase in the NIH budget, our nation will certainly lose our position as medical research leaders.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  34. farid shakur

    So let it be known, so let it be written; This planet is filled with people who are misguided about the real and rational understanding of this creation and how it works. Science "not RELIGION" is the salvation to our existence, if we as humans don't grow away from the misguided untruths we allowed RELIGION to inundate us with we wll be doomed! Get smart go science!!

    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  35. Armando

    This is absurd. The socialist-environmental lobby has turned global warming into a fanatical religion devoid of science. If the world gets hotter it's global warming. If it gets colder it's global warming. If it stays the same it's global warming. Faith of the existence of man-made global warming has replaced science and fact. It is now a political and pseudo-religious movement that ignores all science or evidence.

    Global warming is not man-made.

    Climate change is a natural cyclical pattern driven by solar output and has existed for billions of years.

    On stem-cell research, Bush only prohibited government subsidies and support for embryonic stem cell research. PRIVATE research is still legal and readily available.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  36. Steve

    Simply more reasons to separate church and state. I don't want someone's religious views, even if I agree with them, to stand in the way of cures and treatments that could extend life and/or alleviate human suffering.

    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
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