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Grading Obama’s First 100 Days: A Scientific Perspective

April 29, 2009

Political junkies know that today is a milestone- we have now reached the first 100 days of Barack Obama’s historic ** presidency. I’m not really sure why this is so significant other than it’s a nice round number, but if MSNBC and Fox News can agree on an issue, there must be something to it. I have tried as much as possible to keep my politics out of my writing since they seem to confuse people (I was described as a right wing fascist and a left wing nutjob in the same week), but evaluating the Obama administration’s science related policies seems like it falls within the realm of reasonable discussion.

I will say in the interest of transparency that I am a centrist Democrat. I was never one of Obama’s fanatical worshipers, but I voted for him when faced with the prospect of Sarah Palin being one extremely weak heartbeat away from the Presidency. I do loves me some Joe Biden and was quite pleased with his selection as Vice President.

David and then-Senator Biden, 2003

David and then-Senator Biden, 2003

In the interest of time, I’m going to focus only on some of the major (and representative) science-related decisions made by the Obama administration. I’m sure that many of you can think of “important” issues that I’ve missed, and I’m happy to discuss them, but let’s try to focus the conversation on the issues I mention here.

1) Attitude towards science in general:

His inauguration speech mentioned “returning science to its rightful place”. While this was a sentence much celebrated by scientists, it is really only a good thing IN COMPARISON to the Bush administration. He doesn’t mention moving science to a new place, only putting science back where it used to be before the Bush administration… in other words, nothing special, but I guess it’s a good thing. B-

Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, another move much celebrated by scientists, as well as by doctors and activists. Due to recent discoveries like this one, this is primarily a symbolic victory for science, but still, it’s something. Again, this is something that’s primarily good IN COMPARISON to the Bush administration, not something unique to Obama, so I’m reluctant to give him too much credit for it. However, like many of you, I had a grandparent who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and it was horrible. I’m pretty pleased at the notion of researcher’s not being stopped from potentially curing horrible diseases because a misinterpretation of how that research works offends a few people. B+

Obama directed the Office of Science and Technology policy to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.” This was also much celebrated… but again here’s that word “restore”. He’s not moving national science policy forward, he’s just putting it back where it was before president Bush. Also, what the heck does that even mean? It’s as vague as “hope” and “change”. C

For trying to confuse the American people by throwing around numbers so large that we can’t really process them (i.e. trying to make something pretty lame sound impressive)… F.

In order to pass the “stimulus” bill, a few things were cut either partially or entirely- in other words, they were not considered a priority:

  • $3.5 billion for energy-efficient federal buildings (original bill $7 billion)
  • $200 million from Environmental Protection Agency Superfund
  • $100 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • $300 million from federal fleet of hybrid vehicles
  • $65 million for watershed rehabilitation
  • $100 million for National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • $2 billion for broadband***
  • $50 million for NASA
  • $50 million for aeronautics
  • $200 million for National Science Foundation
  • $100 million for science ( this may be the vaguest sentence CNN has ever published)
  • $25 million for Fish and Wildlife
  • $165 million for Forest Service capital improvement
  • $3.5 billion for higher education construction +
  • $16 billion for school construction+

This list represents well over half the total items that were cut from the stimulus plan. For considering these science items the lowest priority out of anything in that enormous bill… F – (that’s right, that’s an F MINUS)

Overall on general attitude towards science: D. He talks a good game, but when he’s backed into a corner by a few Republicans, science and conservation programs are some of the first to be cut. Consider me unimpressed. For the record, this is slightly better than the overall G I would give President Bush’s attitude towards science (a G is used when an F minus isn’t quite low enough).

2) Appointees to key science positions.

Head of NOAA: Jane Lubchenco. We’ve discussed this already on Southern Fried Science. A +.

Head of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Harvard Physicist John Holdren. As near as I can tell, this isn’t a terribly important position, and the list of responsibilities is shorter than the title… but Holdren seems like a good guy. He used to be the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’d like this pick more if he was in a position of more power. B+

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and technology is co-chaired by Holdren, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus (who used to run NIH), and MIT genome expert Eric Lander. Sounds like a good group to me. A

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is another nobel laureate, who won the 97 prize for physics. The person in charge of energy policy seems to actually understand the science behind some of the decisions, which is nice. A-

The head of the EPA will be the former head of environmental policy for New Jersey, a state well known for not being an industrial wasteland. Insert sarcasm here. Anyway, Lisa Jackson sounds like she knows what she’s doing, but some of her restrictions on business have been blamed for NJ governor Corzine’s increasing unpopularity. I give her a cautiously optimistic B+

Overall, Obama’s science and environment team is composed of some real winners. I’m pretty pleased. They all have a great deal of experience…which is what I liked about John McCain, but we won’t go there. Appointees grade: A

3) Environmental policy

Acknowledging that global warming is really happening and really a problem: A

Talking about doing something about global warming: A

Actually doing something about global warming: F so far, though there is talk of working out the details on a “cap and trade” system.

Acknowledging that there are other problems facing the planet than global warming: F

Not undoing the last minute changes Bush made to environmental laws on his way out the door- F. Seriously, it would take about 2 minutes to just undo these changes and make things back to the way they used to be.

In summary:

Overall, like in many of his policies, Obama’s science agenda consists largely of awesome-sounding promises that haven’t happened yet. Like with the rest of his administration, though, Obama has chosen smart people who know what they are doing to fill key science positions. Since Obama’s day-to-day agenda will be filled with trying to solve the economic crisis, end one war, and win another war, I guess the best we can hope for is putting people who know what they’re doing in charge of the on-the-ground details. Fortunately for Obama’s reputation, he has four years to get things done, and not just 100 days.

Overall grade: C+

image credit, referred to me by Irradiatus

image credit, referred to me by Irradiatus

** I say “historic” because all Presidents are historic; we simply haven’t had that many of them and all have a great deal of influence on the world. All of the media people who keep saying that Obama’s Presidency is historic primarily because of the color of his skin really do the man (and the office of President) a disservice in my opinion.

*** Broadband totally counts as science related funding

+ So does building schools and institutions of higher learning.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Gorham permalink
    April 30, 2009 6:42 pm

    I’d drop him to a D, D- for his total lack of support for nuclear power (he doesn’t actually come out against it, but he might as well).

    But then, I’m a bit prejudiced.

  2. Craig Nazor permalink
    May 1, 2009 2:03 am

    The Republicans were responsible for cutting almost all of that stuff from the stimulus package. It is likely that Obama didn’t fight them because if he had, then NONE of it would have passed. I have a hard time blaming Obama for that.

    Politics is the art of the possible. It will be interesting to hear what your evaluation will be in about a year.

    As for global climate change (GCC), the carbon-fuels industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone to block a cap and trade policy on carbon. Energy lobbyists currently outnumber ALL other lobbyists by a better than three-to-one margin in Washington. And have you been watching commercials recently? If a cap and trade policy on carbon is something worth supporting, I believe we are all going to have to speak up, because change of that magnitude against vested interests of the unimaginable wealth of Big Energy (talk about big numbers!) NO President has ever achieved on his own.

    You may have noticed that the EPA has recently declared global-warming gasses “pollutants”, meaning that the EPA can now regulate them under the Clean Air Act. This is a way to pressure Congress to take action. If enough legislators block GCC legislation (which can only happen through a perceived lack of public support), and the EPA acts, prepare yourself for one of the nastiest political battles in our lifetimes. The lines are being drawn.

    And then there is the ocean-acidification effects of high levels of atmospheric CO2, the species extinctions these changes will cause, global shifting of diseases, etc…

    If I had to pick the ONE most important problem that human civilization faces (and maybe ever has or will face), it would be human-caused GCC. And that fight has only just begun.

    Obama is going to have a lot to be graded on.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 1, 2009 10:50 am

      “The Republicans were responsible…I have a hard time blaming Obama for that.”

      The Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. That means that they get blamed when things don’t happen the way the are supposed to. You can’t blame the Repubicans for everything.

      I’ll concede that some compromise was probably necessary to get the bill to pass. However, WELL OVER HALF of the items dropped were science related. In that gigantic bill, these science-related items were considered the lowest priority. My point still stands.

      • Craig Nazor permalink
        May 2, 2009 10:47 pm

        The stimulus package had to have 60 Senators vote for it to avoid a filibuster. It took three Republican Senators to cross the line – one has now become a Democrat. Obama had to have the package for political reasons. Those three Senators got to choose what was cut. That is the best information I can find.

        While I agree with you that Obama does not support science as well as you or I might, I am not ready to judge him as harshly as you are, and I do believe that credit should go where credit is due.

        Not even searching, I ran across these two articles today:

        Both of these articles show real signs of hope, and are a big change from the former administration. They are also pretty interesting developments!

  3. Steve Bloom permalink
    May 1, 2009 4:02 pm

    Offhand, you missed some stuff:

    “Officials at the Interior and Commerce departments said they have reimposed the consultation requirement that assured the government’s top biologists involved in species protection will have a say in federal action that could harm plants, animals and fish that are at risk of extinction.”

    “The Obama administration took steps Monday to reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows mountaintop mining waste to be dumped near streams saying it was bad public policy. (…) Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was cracking down on mountaintop removal by taking a closer look at 150 to 200 permits pending before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (…)

    “On Monday, in another sign the Obama administration is targeting Bush administration environmental policies, the agency announced it was initiating a review of three rules that environmentalists and the state of New Jersey had asked the agency to reconsider but in two cases the Bush administration denied. The regulations deal with a program that ensures air quality is not worsened when industrial facilities are expanded or modified.”

    “EPA is notifying the public of its intent to review the current aquatic life criterion for marine pH to determine if a revision is warranted to protect the marine designated uses of States and Territories pursuant to Section 304(a)(1) of the Clean Water Act. The NODA also solicits additional scientific information and data, as well as ideas for effective strategies for Federal, State, and local officials to address the impacts of ocean acidification. This information can then be used as the basis for a broader discussion of ocean acidification and marine impacts.”

    FYI re the process for the foregoing: “The Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Program Ocean Acidification Subcommittee is currently discussing how to coordinate and provide input to the recent EPA federal register notice on ocean acidification. If you would like to be involved, please contact OCB Ocean Acidification Subcommittee co-chairs Joan Kleypas ( and Richard Feely (”

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 1, 2009 11:07 pm

      He’s done a lot and politics is only a side interest for me, so I don’t doubt that I missed some stuff.

      Care to comment on what I wrote about?

  4. Steve Bloom permalink
    May 1, 2009 11:26 pm

    You gave Obama an F on repealing the bad Bush environmental rules, but the links I provided demonstrate that most of them (I’m not sure what the complete list is) are gone or going. You might also want to amend the F grade pertaining to recognizing other environmental problems. I agree with Craig that the F- is also unjustified given that Obama tried to get full funding for those items and it was Congress that did the cutting. Note that Obama can’t be said to control Congress in even a technical sense so long as that 60% cloture rule remains in place.

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 2, 2009 9:44 am

      I am not going to give Obama a better grade on the grounds that he wanted something to happen but it didn’t work out. I see what you’re saying, but I doubt that you would have given President Bush credit for a good idea he had that ended up not coming to pass. Republican obstruction meant that some compromise was needed on the stimulus bill. That does NOT mean that over half of the “compromise” needed to be in science related funding. That means that science was not considered a priority.

      As for the Bush changed to the environmental record, I thought that I provided this link in the original article, which I was I was confused by your links. My bad.

      Obama has undone some of the changes Bush made, but there were a series of high-profile massive changes made in Bush’s last days, that’s what I was referencing, and to my knowledge the Obama team has done nothing to change those yet.

      Listen to Obama’s speeches. He frequently references saving the environment, but almost never without also mentioning “global warming”.

  5. Steve Bloom permalink
    May 2, 2009 7:04 pm

    As one of my links indicated, the most sweeping of the two rules has already been rescinded. That leaves the polar bear rule. See CBD’s current press release.

    I would point out that Obama signed the special law allowing for the repeal within a 60-day window, and that the repeal process needs to be seen as deliberative.

    If you don’t like global warming being referenced as frequently as possible when discussing current environmental issues, I think you need to find a source for this material that isn’t CBD.

    Re the science funding in the stimulus, I spent about half an hour trying to find anything other than an endorsement of Obama’s role from any scientist or environmentalist. Oother than a few right-wingers who wanted less or no funding, I had no luck. See here, e.g. Inferring that Obama was in a position to control the nature of the cuts is, I think, inferring wrong. The handful of “centrist” Senators was in the driver’s seat on that. Can you document anything to the contrary?

    • May 2, 2009 8:23 pm

      as I occasionally have to say to my students, you don’t get the grade you want, you get the grade you earn. I have high hopes for the next 8 years of Obama, but that doesn’t mean we are going to close up shop and say “yay, everything’s fine”

      • Steve Bloom permalink
        May 2, 2009 9:17 pm

        Does being past taking classes yourelf mean you’re exempted from doing your homework? I would suggest to you that being caught in a major factual error should result in a little more humility.

        I certainly agree that Obama has yet to take the real test. The first 100 days is more like the first pop quiz. What you did seems to me to be equivalent to grading the latter as if it was the former.

        BTW, my politics and background are such that I’m very inclined to be harsh on Obama. It’s just that he’s exceeded expectations in this issue area.

      • May 3, 2009 10:17 am

        “Does being past taking classes yourelf mean you’re exempted from doing your homework? I would suggest to you that being caught in a major factual error should result in a little more humility.”

        You showed David that he repealed one of the two major rules. In my book, 50% is still an F. Sheesh.

        “I certainly agree that Obama has yet to take the real test. The first 100 days is more like the first pop quiz. What you did seems to me to be equivalent to grading the latter as if it was the former.”

        So he got some bad grades on the first pop quiz, so? How is that any different? And I have absolutely no idea what you mean by ‘what I did’?

  6. Steve Bloom permalink
    May 3, 2009 7:43 pm

    “You showed David that he repealed one of the two major rules. In my book, 50% is still an F.”

    So then it goes to an A+ next week when the second one is issued based on the law Obama signed that everyone in DC understood to be a guarantee that both would be repealed? Note, BTW, that there are only two ESA-related rules at issue, and that the one that’s already been repealed is far and away the most important.

    My broader point was more that David neglected to check his facts before posting and seems oddly reticent about admitting error. One would think in particular that a marine biology grad student would have noticed and accorded great significance to the ocean acidification rule process, but apparently not.

    • May 3, 2009 7:53 pm

      “So then it goes to an A+ next week when the second one is issued based on the law Obama signed that everyone in DC understood to be a guarantee that both would be repealed?”

      Of course, when it happens. Although I don’t give A+’s…

    • whysharksmatter permalink*
      May 3, 2009 7:58 pm

      I graded Obama based on what he had done SO FAR. He had not repealed those changes Bush made AT THE TIME OF THE GRADING. If he does make the changes, than he would no longer be penalized in my grading scheme for not doing so, but he hasn’t done so yet.

      I don’t really understand why this is so confusing and distressing to you.

  7. Steve Bloom permalink
    May 3, 2009 7:46 pm

    Re my “what I did” remark, I mistakenly thought I was responding to a comment from David.

    • May 3, 2009 7:59 pm

      You’ve got a moderate case of SIWOTI and have probably failed to realize that WhySharksMatter hasn’t commented at all since your last comment, which means he’s probably of doing stuff in the world. The immediately jumping to “OMG he’s so arrogant I can’t believe a marine scientist would be so wrong WTF” is something I would expect from a troll, not a thoughtful commenter.

      • whysharksmatter permalink*
        May 3, 2009 8:02 pm

        “WhySharksMatter hasn’t commented at all since your last comment, which means he’s probably of doing stuff in the world.”

        Ooo.. unfortunate timing.

  8. whysharksmatter permalink*
    May 3, 2009 8:00 pm

    This quote appeared in the original post:

    “In the interest of time, I’m going to focus only on some of the major (and representative) science-related decisions made by the Obama administration. I’m sure that many of you can think of “important” issues that I’ve missed, and I’m happy to discuss them, but let’s try to focus the conversation on the issues I mention here.”

    I didn’t leave out decisions that he made out of ignorance or malice or to annoy Steve Bloom. I focused on SOME of the stories that generated the most news.

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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

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