Grading Obama’s First 100 Days: A Scientific Perspective
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.
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.
- $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.
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+
** 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.