The next President's science

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2008 11:30 am

So let’s say it’s January 2009, and you’re the Science Advisor for the President of these United States. What can you tell him he can do to support science?

The Hive Overmind — I mean, Discover Magazine – was wondering the same thing, so they created Discover’s Science Policy Project, giving "the country’s most celebrated scientists and thinkers the chance to respond to the following question:"

What are the three most important things the next president can do to positively impact scientific research in the United States?

I may not be a celebrated scientist or thinker, but I have done science and I do occasionally think, so I’m guessing that’s why they asked me to contribute. My full answer is on DM’s Reality Base blog written by Melissa Lafsky.

But here’s the first of my three answers on how the next President can support science:

Stop standing on its throat.

The current administration has spun, folded, and mutilated science and scientific research since practically day one, letting ideology trump reality. If the next president does nothing but let science do its thing unfettered, then the situation will be dramatically improved.

Go check out the rest over at Melissa’s place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Science

Comments (30)

  1. IR

    It’s more than a little depressing when things would be dramatically improved from the current situation if the next administration were to simply not do anything. I agree with the statement, but it’s a sad state of affairs.

  2. Good answers Dr Plait. I can’t really expand on that, but how about narrowing down?

    – Expand research on alternative energy. The payoffs will be huge down the road for all of humanity, and the planet as a whole.
    – Re-energize the Space Program. Orion is fine and all, but depending on our “friends” the Russians is really not a sane approach. And there seems to be a lack of talk about the Chinese. I bet they will hit the moon and Mars before anyone. 😉
    – Basic science. You basically covered the gist of this. Can we start up the Super Collider project under Texas?

    Just my 2 coppers.

  3. – Re-create the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment, not Optical Tube Assembly)
    – Boost NASA budget to 150% current level.
    – Boost NSF budget the same ammount.
    – Lift the embryonic stem cell funding ban.
    – Buy me a 24″ Ritchey-Chrétien.

    Oh, you noticed that last one, drat! I thought I’d sneak it by… 😀
    There are other things to add to the list, but this is a start…
    Rich in Charlottesville

  4. Don’t let religious extremists define science. Ideology has no place in science.

  5. Speaking of science and presidential candidates… McCain has responded to ScienceDebate2008’s questions:

    (Note: I haven’t read his response yet. I’m just passing along the URL.)

  6. Ken, I get a 503… I guess a lot of folks are interested in the replies!

  7. Todd W.

    @Richard Drumm

    You won’t get that last one if McCain-Palin win. They’ll squash all earmarks, remember?

  8. Well, we’re spending $20 million per hour in Iraq.

    But that’s BORROWED money…..


    Rich in Charlottesville:
    – Buy me a 24? Ritchey-Chrétien.
    Oh, you noticed that last one, drat! I thought I’d sneak it by…

    Have you considered moving to Alaska?



  9. Chip

    To be specific, when it comes to science, Obama appears to be big on science education and applied sciences, so he and his appointees are receptive to educating and encouraging the young.

    On the other hand, McCain has repeatedly mocked a Bear DNA study (part of research to prevent extinction of polar bears,) as wasteful spending and certainly McCain has no concept of the mainstay of science, collecting raw data and doing research. So he’d veto everything. Palen has a history of Bush style cronyism while Governor, giving important posts to inexperienced friends, so she’d likely continue the Bush practice. McCain has also been chummy with creationists and fundamentalists for quite a while, so he’d likely stand in the way of science funding.

    And even if Obama didn’t make good on all his promises, you can reason with him intelligently. Biden has called creationism and intelligent design “malarkey”. (A well-chosen word, as it is slang for talk intended to deceive.)

    That’s why, if you’re on the side of reason, Obama is the only choice.

  10. Davidlpf

    We must fight the axis of science to stop there science doers making weapons of mass reason, oh mean do the opposite what they are already doing.

  11. IVAN3MAN

    “[He] must answer me these questions three…”

  12. David D.

    Quick read through the McCain answers; much of what I see is very similar to Obama’s answers. Big difference on nuclear power, as McCain doesn’t pussyfoot around and states he will put the counrty on track to have 45 new reactors on line by 2030 (as opposed to Obama’s “research into nuclear technology”). Long detailed answer regarding space policy also; looks well thought out.

  13. How about “Be honest about the fact that you know evolution is true, creationism/ID is false and science is the most honest way to acquire new knowledge.”

    These people are not so dumb as to be true believers. I’d like to see integrity on their part.

  14. LukeL

    I am for McCain because he actually has an energy policy other than saying we will fund future energy alternatives.

    We need to build many more nuclear power plants and drill for as much oil and natural gas as we can. It might be 30 years before wind and solar power can become efficient enough to be used on a mass scale.

  15. Craig

    Give NASA lots of cash but force them to spend it on solving earth-bound problems. We need to get the mess cleaned up down here before we blow tons more cash on orbiting white elephants. Don’t get me wrong, space exploration and technology is important, but alternative energy capture, storage and usage is a more pressing need.

    Unfettered science I am not at all comfortable with. Some scientists and some branches of science care not one bit about ethics, and certainly there has to be some kind watchdog at least. Trouble is, lots of science that is done is under the guise of military so top-secret stuff isn’t going to be controlled and also the big pharmaceuticals aren’t about to open their doors to allow someone in to check out their ethics either.

    I’m not talking about ethics based on religion, by the way, since I believe that the two are mutually exclusive. Science has an obligation to be human, after all. What price do we pay for science with no limitations?

    It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it?

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Can we start up the Super Collider project under Texas?

    You could, but what good would it do now? It was designed to ~ 3 times the LHC energy (dunno about the luminosity), and it was also a hadron collider. LHC will hopefully do the same main work (accepting or rejecting the Higgs, and possibly finding supersymmetry) for less money and with modern technology to boot.

    But AFAIU any future next collider would ideally be a lepton one, elaborating the found physics by “clean” colliding signatures. The upshot of the death of SSC could possibly be that the next putative project must be international, due to the cost, and that would help US mature from the solo competitive to the team work competitive stage of expensive research. (And incidentally, lower US research costs as well.)

    OTOH I hear theoretical physicists speculate that LHC will be the last collider (of its kind, at least) due to the SSC killing and the mounting costs. (See the links Phil provided on the LHC last time.)

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Some scientists and some branches of science care not one bit about ethics,

    Naively I would say that is ridiculous as regards the outcome of science. (I.e. what individual scientists does have not much ethical effect, and there isn’t any specific unethical science.) Please provide references.

    certainly there has to be some kind watchdog at least

    But there is! Universities have ethics committees, there are peer review et cetera, all things that, say, commercial markets don’t have in general. Science is more watched than any other social activity I can think of. (With the possible exceptions of closely related education and medicine.)

  18. LukeL

    If science is so regulated then why have we allowed scientists to create ‘hybrids” of humans and animals by splicing animal DNA into a human embryo.

  19. Alan Stern

    Except of course the IAU says it is not a planets since no one knows if it has cleared its zone.
    Fortunately, the discovery team knows better that to follow IAU pronouncements….

  20. Daniel

    1 Raise pay for all teachers and super-fund science. Every teacher should make $100,000+ a year minimum.

    2 Get rid of No Child Left Behind Act.

    3 Super fund Public television programs relating to science and nature

    4 Make NASA a more viable space agency with High standards internally and externally make it an agency with outreach to all 50 states.

  21. LukeL

    Why should teachers with only a 4 year degree make so much money? The public school I went to was great and even then the teachers spent 50% of the day in study halls or personal periods, or lunch. Maybe 4 class periods were actually teaching.

    Also at MPS the habitual truancy rate is 48% (this includes kindergarten to 12th grade) One high school has a 98% truancy rate. with these stats MPS still isn’t close to being the worst school district in the country. Yet every year they get more and more money, yet every year they always fail.

    The average teacher in WI makes over $45,000.00 per year this doesn’t include any fringe benefits which usually top over 20K per year. All this and they get 2-3X more vactation than most workers.

  22. jess tauber

    McCain in interview (

    He was asked about nearly $200 million in congressional pet projects Palin requested for 2009 for her state, despite her boasts that she opposes such projects and his claim that she didn’t ask for any. McCain responded by criticizing Obama for seeking more than $900 million in these earmarks, by one count.

    “That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said. “And when you look at some of the PLANETARIUMS AND OTHER FOOLISHNESS that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

  23. Daniel

    I like our teachers…shoot, lets give em $200,000+ a year. The fact they have more vacation and a 4 year degree is secondary, and with all due respect…who cares. They TEACH and put up with so much crap from parents and students as you know (in some areas they need hazard pay)…need i go on about pay for our police and firemen?

  24. Gary Ansorge

    Last I heard, we only do DNA substitutions FROM humans TO animal embryos, not the other way round,,,so we’re not making human hybrids, we’re making ANIMAL hybrids. There is a tremendous ethical difference between those two approaches.

    Ivan3Man: LOVED the Monty Python skit and it’s SOOOO true,,,

    GAry 7

  25. Todd W.

    I’d also mention regarding teacher salaries, that in a lot of places, teachers must buy their own supplies for class, especially in the lower grades.

  26. The blogging discussion seems to have gotten off track a little. Par for that course. [Aside: LukeL says that drilling for oil and more nukes is the only valid idea, because wind, etc. will take 30 years to come on stream. (a) drilling more won’t last 30 more years. It might not last 10; that’s after it comes on line, in about 10 years from the day they get the go-ahead. Not going to get the price of crude down soon that way. How will we make plastic items (replacing wood) when that little is gone? (b) nuclear fusion plant builders have not yet explained to me how they will handle the ‘effluent’ – the spent fuel, the ‘hot’ equipment and other detritus that we have no place to permanently store today. I once knew a fuel reprocessing plant worker; if you are willing to condemn him to an early death from cancer or radiation sickness, then maybe you can do it.]

    I _think_ that alternate energy sources, wind, solar direct conversion, methane recovery from digested manure, etc., qualify as “applied science.” If so, the government needs to encourage their development, without focusing on one alternative. The best way to do that is to expand the market – the potential demand – for alternate energy. The next President could, on Jan 20, 2009, issue a directive to the General Services Administration. He would specify that the GSA will pay say 25% _more_ for alternate energy supplies of electricity to run the gov’t offices, compared to bids for ‘traditional’ energy. I’m sure the owners of the electric grid will find a way to get that power to the offices, if they have it to provide. In five years time we won’t need that 25% incentive. It is only to get the market started.

    A portion of the funds in NSF and Dept. of Energy, and other gov’t ‘research’ funds, could be allocated for serious questions about those alternate forms. There is a heck of a lot of work going on already, by companies that make the equipment. Techniques to cut the area of solar cells by 75% by concentrating the light on them. Sharp reductions in cost of refining solar grid silicon. Redesign of power plant control logic to make hybrid busses far more fuel effective. Alloy development to resist corrosion in critical parts of coal power plants (that may allow higher operating temperatures, increasing efficiency) No government, NSF type agency, or person can predict which ones are going to be most effective. So you assure a market is available during this initial stage, and let them all try out their stuff.

    LukeL says it will take 30 years for these things to come on line. Yet he has been able to buy an all electric car for the last 15 years; and windmills are working in Wisconsin now (N. B.: The electronic controls, generator, and blades all come from Denmark). We need to build some of these things, find out what’s right and wrong with them, and see if we can fix the ‘wrong’ parts.

    We need to do it now. Jan. 20, 2009 will be OK.

  27. @ Gary Ansorge

    I’m glad you liked it. If only our politicians were to suffer the same fate, as portrayed in the above video clip, whenever they failed to live up to their promises, then the World would be a better place.

  28. kanimal

    Oh, waaaahhhhh. Cry baby scientists. How has this administration stepped on sciences throat? By not funding fetal stem cell research, one of the biggest boondoggles in history? Or by not funding ‘alternative’ fuels because were all going to fry in 20 years? Another load of BS by science. All of you scientists keep whining about the money. It’s all about the money. If you don’t get your piece of the pie then the ‘administration’ is stepping on your ‘throat’. Science moves along quite nicely without government interference or money, thank you. Bunch of whiners…let me get you a tissue.

  29. scottb

    @kanimal wrote: “Another load of BS by science”

    And you have provided a fine example of science ignorance. Did you actually read what Phil wrote or any of the examples he has given over the past year (or more) of science suppresion?

    I didn’t think so…


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