Published online 25 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1135


Obama outlines science spending boost

Nobel laureates endorse Democratic candidate and his plans for science.

As political and financial leaders in the United States struggled on Thursday to contain the meltdown on Wall Street, presidential contender Barack Obama released an 11-page "plan for science and innovation" that outlined aggressive investments in science and technology. The proposal includes a doubling of funding over ten years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama proposed funding increases for science and technology.

At the same time, 61 US Nobel science laureates endorsed Obama — the largest number ever to make their voices heard during a presidential campaign. In 2004, 48 science Nobelists threw their weight behind John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential contender.

The Obama supporters range from James Watson, a 1962 Nobel prize winner in physiology or medicine, to two of last year's winners in physiology or medicine, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies. In an "open letter to the American people," they write: "The country urgently needs a visionary leader who can ensure the future of our traditional strengths in science and technology and who can harness those strengths to address many of our greatest problems: energy, disease, climate change, security, and economic competitiveness. We are convinced that Senator Barack Obama is such a leader."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has not yet laid out his plans for science and technology in such detail, and his campaign did not return a request for comment.

Fleshed out

The Obama plan contains more specific details on science policies than had been released previously (see the questions he answered for Nature on related topics here: For instance, he plans to restore the presidential science advisor to a position that reports directly to the president; details a "fast track" system to permit international students who study at US universities to begin working in the United States without having to return home first; emphasizes research into "smart grids" to improve efficiency in the nation's electrical distribution system; and talks of strengthening the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's hub for cutting-edge research.

Besides the NIH, agencies that would benefit from funding increases would include the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As a senator, John McCain has voted in favour of such increases in the physical sciences, under the rubric of the popular America COMPETES Act.

Some of the Nobelists supporting Obama say they did so because they want change after eight years of President George W. Bush's administration, during which researchers have complained of manipulation of science for political ends. "We need new and visionary leadership," says Bob Horvitz, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Senator Obama will engage top scientists in our nation's great challenges."

Securing the proposed funding increases may itself be a great challenge, particularly given the present fiscal crisis. The NIH's $29-billion annual budget has already been stagnating over the past few years.


Biologist Harold Varmus, head of Obama's science advisory team and former head of the NIH, says that Obama shows a commitment to increasing funding for the sciences, whereas McCain has proposed a one-year spending freeze to cope with blooming deficits. Yet whoever the next president is, he will ultimately have to rely on Congress to pass spending bills — and on Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed by a wide margin a 'continuing resolution' funding bill that leaves both NIH and NSF flat-funded into 2009. 

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