Obama’s second term: Where the US stands on science policy

Obama w doctorsTo mark the beginning of his second term as America’s President, The Triple Helix Online will be writing about the future of Barack Obama’s science policy. Through the rest of January, our staff writers will explore issues spanning healthcare reform, drug policy, and energy independence.

Shortly after he took office in early 2009, Mr. Obama announced that his policies would be based primarily on science and research, not on ideology or politics. But it is often difficult to separate politics from policy, and ideology continues to sway policy decisions away from their scientific foundations. A “clear anti-science bias” was apparent in last year’s Republican primary campaigns, says Robert Lefkowitz, Nobel laureate in chemistry. In his speech during the Nobel Banquet last December, Dr. Lefkowitz boldly criticized Republican candidates for their “refusal to accept, for example, the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming, much less of the role of humans in this process, and the value of vaccines or of embryonic stem cell research.” But despite efforts by Democrats to portray themselves as “pro-science”, they also have allowed pet ideological causes to trump science, according to Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. Authors of the book Science Left Behind, Dr. Berezow and Mr. Campbell note that Democrats have disagreed with scientists on issues including genetic modification and the safety of vaccines. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, wrote in Rolling Stone and Salon.com of his belief that vaccines cause autism. Both articles, published in 2005, have since been retracted, but Mr. Obama acknowledged that voters continued to voice similar concerns on the campaign trail in 2008.

Other salient issues, such as government budgets and the economy, seem to dominate in media coverage, but science policy is not as unrelated as one might think. If Congress had not prevented the “fiscal cliff” a few weeks ago, automatic spending cuts would have removed $11.3 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget and $2.1 billion from the National Science Foundation budget over the next five years. Such measures would have led to cuts in research grants, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a partner of The Triple Helix. At the University of Pennsylvania, officials estimated that 22 jobs would have been lost for every $1 million in reduced funding. Aside from universities and research institutions, cultural icons also have been at risk. Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History recently announced that it is cutting $3 million annually from its science operations budget, threatening the jobs of researchers, curators, and academics.

A sound deficit reduction plan will require some spending cuts, but governments and research institutions should carefully consider the effects on scientific progress. Discoveries and new advances could quickly suffer, and it may be difficult to regain their potential in the future. The measures would hinder progress on government interests including energy independence, national security, and climate change. The lack of grants would also make it harder for young scientists to launch their careers, according to AAAS executives. Researchers now get their first grant from the NIH at the average age of 42, which could rise if budgets are further constrained.

Moving forward, the Obama administration should promote investments in science — at least the ones that are proven to pay off for the nation in the long term. Mr. Obama should also reaffirm his commitment to science-based policymaking, and reduce the “anti-science bias” in political discourse by urging the public to further explore scientific issues of political significance.


  1. Berezow, Alex and Hank Campbell. “Are Democrats Really the ‘Pro-Science’ Party?
  2. Brown, Eryn. “Automatic budget cuts would devastate science, say scientists.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified September 28, 2012.
  3. Lane, Earl. “Federal and State Research Could Be Crippled by Looming Cuts, Says New AAAS Report.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last modified September 28, 2012.
  4. Lefkowitz, Robert J. “Banquet Speech.” Nobelprize.org. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  5. Obama, Barack. “Scientific Integrity.” The White House. Last modified March 9, 2009.
  6. Shen, Helen and Nature magazine. “Chicago’s Field Museum Cuts Back on Science.” Scientific American. Last modified December 20, 2012.
  7. Image credit (public domain): Souza, Pete. “Obama meets doctors.” Wikimedia Commons. Taken October 5, 2009.

This editorial was written by members of our International Editorial Board. More articles about Mr. Obama’s science policy will be published through the rest of January 2013.