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Barack Obama and Science

Paul Kohlmiller


If you are a voter in Santa Clara County then the odds are about 7 out of 10 that you voted for Barack Obama for president. Those reading this newsletter can rightly wonder what effect this election may have on science and science education in this country. Therefore I think it is appropriate to discuss the president-elect’s feelings about science in this newsletter.

Certainly this election was historic in many ways. Despite the large difference in the results, Senator McCain still got 4 million more votes than Ronald Reagan did in the landslide election of 1984. It was also probably the election that garnered the most science attention. Stem cell research at least got a mention. Climate change got a terse recognition. NASA was mentioned most often when the candidates were in Texas or Florida – no surprise there.

Late in 2007, Popular Mechanics rated a dozen presidential candidates on their stands on issues they felt were relevant to their readers including Space, the environment, technology and science education. Obama scored in 7 of 8 issues. No other candidate did better than 6. But it isn’t all rosy. In April of 2008 Popular Mechanics said of all the candidates “don’t get your hopes up ... none ... are likely to fund the current plan” for manned spaceflight because of budgetary pressures. That was months before the September meltdown. But Obama advisor Sharon Long (Stanford University biologist) when asked if Obama would stand by earlier promises to increase science funding said “The answer is, how can we afford not to?”. In the November 14 issue of Science in an article entitled “Obama Victory Raises Hopes for New Policies, Bigger Budgets” it was stated that scientists hope for an “era of sustained, healthy increases” for research but because of deficits and the economy it “may not happen anytime soon.”

Governor Palin took a lot of hits for dismissing research concerning fruit flies, apparently not aware of all of the science done with Drosophila. John McCain, looking for an earmark that he thought would sound ridiculous, attacked the $3 million spent on the Adler Planetarium. Jules Siegel of the Huffington Post wrote “The Planetarium item dramatizes the know-nothing, anti-science, anti-education attitudes of the McCain voter base”. If any SJAA member voted for McCain, this doesn’t apply to you.

One litmus test to see how scientifically minded a candidate is would be to ask about the teaching of creationism. Obama and McCain both accept evolution but the selection of Sarah Palin, someone who advocates teaching creationism in public schools (in an 2006 gubernatorial debate she said “teach both”) raised some concerns. However, the quote attributed to Governor Palin offering that the moose could not be the result of evolution (“is evolution a committee?”), is false according to

One group made an attempt to have the candidates participate in a debate that would focus on science related issues alone. This failed but both candidates did answer some questions (see The Obama team of science advisors included Long, NASA researcher Donald Lamb, Peter Agre – a Nobel prize winner, Gilbert Ommen – former president of the AAAS, and Harold Varmus – former head at the NIH. A small part of team Obama’s response regarding space research said in an Obama administration “NASA not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration, but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth”.

In an article by Brandan Keim (Wired) Obama was described as someone who appreciates the process of science and that he “pledges to reverse the ideologically motivated science-skewing that has thrived under the Bush administration.” From UsInnovation.Org there is this from then candidate Obama, “STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas.” Actions speak louder than words but evidence of action is available. Silicon Valley congressman Michael Honda joined Barack Obama and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar in introducing a bill on STEM education improvements. STEM is the common acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

In a recent article in, Brian Berger says that Obama will take office “having offered more specifics about his plans for NASA than any U.S. presidential candidate in history”. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) lists making a decision on the shuttle’s retirement (now planned for 2010) as one of the 13 most urgent issues for the new president. But those considerations include economics, politics and foreign policy (e.g. do we want to depend on Russia given recent events with Georgia) rather than science.

Finally, there is this comment on science investment on the website. “Barack Obama and Joe Biden support doubling federal funding for basic research over ten years, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology. This will foster home-grown innovation, help ensure the competitiveness of US technology-based businesses, and ensure that 21st century jobs can and will grow in America.”


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