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Scientists urged to plan for the next US president

Policy experts tell researchers to lobby now for the next science adviser.

Don’t wait: scientists told to start lobbying presidential candidates such as Barack Obama (left) and Hillary Clinton. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters

Quit whining and get proactive. That’s the message that policy experts gave scientists at the weekend. They advised them to stop complaining that politicians don’t take science seriously and instead prepare for the presidential changeover next January.

Scientists were urged to organize now — for instance, by coming up with a list of names for high-profile science positions in the new administration, no matter who runs it.

There are just 77 days between the 4 November presidential election and the 20 January 2009 inauguration, notes Neal Lane, a senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who served as science adviser to President Bill Clinton. During those 77 days, the entire executive branch of the government must be set up, including some 50 positions particularly important to science and technology. “It’s a huge undertaking,” Lane says.

““No matter who wins, we’ll be light years ahead of where we are.” ”

Lane and other experts were addressing researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, Massachusetts. The hotly contested presidential race dominated much of the meeting: in the hallways, advocates passed out lapel buttons promoting the idea of a science debate between the candidates (see Nature 451, 621 ; 2008). The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, announced a “call to action for scientific freedom and the public good”, asking Congress and the White House to support integrity in federal science. And representatives of Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke to a packed room about the positions their candidates hold on science and technology.

Underlying this activity is a palpable frustration with eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration, during which scientists have spoken out about the perceived manipulation of science for political ends (see Nature 427, 663 ; 2004). Policy experts advised researchers to waste no time in trying to change that. Lane, for instance, said the community needs to line up the names of top scientists who could serve as science adviser, as well as lobby to restore the title of ‘special assistant to the president’ — a direct reporting line to the president that was removed by Bush. Other key positions to be filled include possible heads of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and NASA.

At the conference, representatives from the Obama and Clinton campaigns competed to win the hearts of the assembled scientists. Clinton adviser Tom Kalil of the University of California, Berkeley, ran through key points in Clinton’s ‘innovation agenda’, which includes doubling basic research funding over 10 years. Alec Ross, a technology entrepreneur and adviser to Obama, focused on his candidate’s plans to expand broadband and technology infrastructure to all Americans. He also hinted that within weeks Obama would unveil a new plan for NASA and space exploration.

Both advisers said their candidates were considering participating in the science debate, planned for 18 April at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Invitations have also gone to John McCain and Mike Huckabee.The pair, together with Ron Paul, were all invited to the AAAS meeting, although none sent a representative.

Outgoing AAAS president David Baltimore says he sees little difference between the Democratic candidates, and knows little about where McCain stands on science issues. But no matter who wins, he says, “we’ll be light years ahead of where we are”.

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Witze, A. Scientists urged to plan for the next US president. Nature 451, 875 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/451875a

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