Are Obama's Science Picks A Slap To Life Sciences?
    By Hank Campbell | December 19th 2008 05:41 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    When I learned that Barack Obama had picked John Podesta as his transition chief, I was not impressed, being that he has a crank belief the government is hiding UFOs.

    The folks at ScienceDebate don't necessarily agree, though I think they are going to bless anything Obama does, because about Podesta they wrote a few days ago "Clearly, this is a man who gets it, working, it seems, for a president who gets it."(email, no link on their website)

    Well, does he get it for all science?  Appointing physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary was certainly a good sign.   But we have Larry Summers, who thinks girls can't do math, as director of Obama's National Economic Council and, whether he will admit it or not, has something of a bone to pick with academia for the way he was railroaded out of his job at Harvard by reactionaries.   And now President-elect Obama has appointed John Holdren of Harvard as science advisor.    Another physicist.

    That can't be bad, right?   

    Well, it depends on what science you are in.   I prefer to think of a science advisor as someone who will be thinking about the policy issues of the upcoming decade and he instead has settled on Holdren  (and also Jane Lubchenco to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration) and what do they all have in common?

    They're actively outspoken about CO2 and global warming.    

    You'll have to pardon me if I don't think CO2 is the biggest issue we face in the short term.   Obviously I have recognized the impact of pollution on the climate for a lot longer than many of the scientist activist know-it-alls who write on the internet but I recognize a lot of hype when I see it as well.   Biology issues, outside the detriment Bush heaped on science by restricting human embryonic stem cells research lines, are not hyped.    They're not even discussed enough.   But they're real and they're coming at us like a freight train.  Lubchenco is at least a marine biologist but she isn't going to even meet Obama much less have a meeting with him and help navigate the ethical and policy issues that will come up.

    Biology is, at its heart, about breaking the laws of nature and we need someone who understands more than global warming and navigating bureaucracies to help make policy decisions  at such an important time.

    Now, I am no biologist, so maybe the science community is still in that euphoric 'anyone but Bush' stage so not terribly concerned that life sciences are getting less of a profile than global warming.   Clearly global warming is something we have to worry about, it just shouldn't be the sole focus of Obama's science strategy, since we are in 2008 and not 1998.

    And 75% of the country is in the middle of a blizzard.


    Hatice Cullingford
    Barack Obama said about Energy and Climate Policy Coordinator, White House, Carol Browner:

    Carol understands that our efforts to create jobs, achieve energy security and combat climate change demand integration among different agencies; cooperation between federal, state and local governments; and partnership with the private sector.
    Browner will be intimate with various policy issues such as energy, climate change, as needed.

    The new team is not complete yet.
    Why did you have to refer to John Podesta as a "crank"?

    Well, that's how we refer to people who try to legitimize their off-the-wall beliefs by calling them science - in Podesta's case by calling on the government to release supposedly secret documents to a 'science' group actually fronted by the Sci-Fi Channel.

    A crank is a crank.   Just because people in academia voted Democrat doesn't mean we suddenly have to give him a pass on undercutting legitimate science.   Podesta isn't the only one around Obama with fringe pseudo-science beliefs.   Bill Richardson is called the Governor of UFOs (and it hurt him a lot in the primaries) for a reason.   And those are just the ones I know about.   I'm not a political guy so there could be more.

    Haven't you been watching 11th Hour on CBS?  Apparently physicists can solve tough biological problems on the side, no problem.  And we biologists are so used to seeing ourselves as playing second fiddle to physics that we forget that this is supposed to be the bioscience century.  Still, Lubchenco is a good pick, and Varmus and Lander look good too.
    How is any of this a slap in the face to biology? In the news we've heard about picks for the NOAA and the EPA, agencies which have a lot to do climate change and very, very little to do with biomedical research.  As for the science advisor, it doesn't really matter what his expertise - his  job is to coordinate and advocate for the budget requests put forward by the various science agencies, and to push Obama to make good picks for the various advisory councils, like the President's Bioethics council.   I don't see how any of the recent picks can be construed as a neglect of biomedical issues.

    For biomedical issues, we need a strong NIH director, a strong FDA administrator, and good, competent people on the Presiden't Bioethics council. Those are the people tasked with looking ahead at the most important biology issues facing us in the next decade. The science advisor is more of a coordinator and advocate for the sepecific agendas of the individual science agencies.

    The NOAA deals a lot with climate change issues - it would have been dumb of Obama not to pick someone with expertise in climate change issues.
    Also, just like Ian said, Obama has two very srtong biologists, Lander and Varmus, joining him as co-chairs of Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Those are two outstanding picks, people who have thought deeply about the pressing biology issues facing us in the next decade.
    In all fairness to Hank, I don't think Lander and Varmus had been named yet when he wrote this post.
    My point was that global warming is not the only policy issue.  Lubchenco is obviously fine at NOAA but in the other positions too much weight on one topic is a concern for me.   I think biology policy is necessary to address a pretty critical group of issues in the next decade.   No one is going to tell us anything new on global warming policy but improperly presented biology issues will end up being a fiasco.

    I wrote this before I knew about Lander and Varmus.  :)
    I didn't know about Lander and Varmus until I looked it up after reading Ian's post, and then just assumed I was the last one to be up on the news, as usual.

    I get your point about not being too focused on one area - there are so many scientific challenges facing us, and that shouldn't be a pet issue to the exclusion of others.
    Hatice Cullingford

    When the EU folks are running the show on climate change, we need our folks to converse intelligently with them and for the benefit of all.

    The next king of Holland, to be installed in April 2009,  is even said to be an "expert" on climate change.

    Other challenges are here for us to face. We can do more than a single issue at a time. To me "biology policy" is at the heart of all the  policies, e.g. energy, space, defense, foreign, domestic, health, education, safety, ..., and, of course, science.