There is every reason to be optimistic about the Obama administration's attitude towards science.
The feel-good glow that pervaded much of Washington DC after the January inauguration of President Barack Obama has faded fast this summer, as the US capital has descended into partisan gridlock over issues such as health-care reform and financial regulation.
Nevertheless, positive steps are quietly being taken. Last week, for example, White House science adviser John Holdren convened the first meeting of the 21-member President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, see page 785) — a star-studded assembly of academics and industry researchers.
As with any such meeting in the early days of a new administration, the PCAST gathering was high on enthusiasm and necessarily low on evidence of effectiveness. But Holdren, who brings an extensive background in nonproliferation and energy issues to his post, noted that the council's first report, on the government's response to the H1N1 flu pandemic, is already in the pipeline for public release within a few weeks. And the meeting's lively discussions on topics such as electronic health records and research comparing the effectiveness of medical treatments suggested that members fully expect their advice to be heeded by the White House.
Also last week, Holdren and Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, signed a memorandum to top federal officials outlining the administration's priorities as the agencies begin to prepare their budget requests for fiscal year 2011. The memo emphasized the key part played by science and technology in those priorities — including economic recovery, health care, energy and climate. And it featured the telling phrase, “sound science should inform policy decisions”.
That was something not seen too often during the administration of George W. Bush, which regularly sidelined science. Last week, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington DC established in 2007 by four former Republican and Democratic senators, served as a reminder of how much work remains to be done to integrate science properly into political decision-making. The report makes recommendations that seem like common sense: proposed regulations should set out what science questions need to be answered, for instance, and there should be clearer conflict-of-interest rules for anyone appointed to a scientific advisory committee. Common sense on scientific matters was all too often lacking in Bush's Washington.
Many challenges await Holdren in the coming months and years, including helping to convince Congress whether major investments in science and technology are warranted, and then delivering progress reports that clearly delineate the success or failure of such investments. His White House team is far from complete; two of his office's four associate director positions — for science and for national security — remain empty and should be filled as quickly as possible with qualified nominees. But overall, science advice in the Obama era is off to a good start.