The end of hope

By Daniel Holz | December 20, 2008 7:49 pm

Many scientists have been actively supporting Obama. This support stems, in part, from a feeling that any change from the past eight years can only be an improvement. But there has also been a belief that Obama fundamentally understands how science works. That he appreciates its relevance to the key issues of the day. And that he will actively solicit input from the scientific community, and that this input will appropriately inform his decisions. All of this has been primarily hypothetical, based mostly on somewhat vague statements and sound bites. Today Obama gave his weekly radio/YouTube address, and it was exclusively devoted to science and technology. In addition to Steve Chu and John Holdren, he has now added Harold Varmus and Eric Lander as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He has assembled a scientific dream team, including two Nobel Laureates, and a host of eminent scientists with public-policy experience. A President is not expected to master the scientific issues at stake. A President’s effectiveness depends solely and crucially on their choice of appointments. These appointments are thus the first and most important scientific decision Obama will make, and he has done an extraordinary job. Of course, the next most important aspect will be whether or not Obama listens to their advice. This will be an extremely difficult group to ignore. In his weekly address Obama announces the appointments, but then articulates his concerns:

Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs—today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

This is a wonderful holiday gift to the scientific community. We no longer have to hope that Obama will do the right thing. We now know he is doing the right thing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Science and Politics
  • bigjohn756

    “…but then articulates his concerns”

    Isn’t is amazing? Having a president who can articulate…anything?

  • ts

    After the disastrous eight years, I can see why people are so excited by Obama. But it’s been pretty funny seeing how even scientists can be a bit naive, thinking Obama will bring any real changes. It’s really just getting back to normal from abnormal, to be honest.

  • bong

    ts, are you a scientist?

  • OilIsMastery

    You’re making the assumption that the scientists are good scientists and not bad scientists or mathematical crackpots.

    There are such things as bad scientists you know.

    “Religion has prevailed! Science has become religion!” — Halton C. Arp, astrophysicist, 2000

    “Science…has adopted the methods of religion.” — Halton C. Arp, astrophysicist, 2000

    Not all scientists of course but you get the point.

    “The mathematicians have become the priests of the modern world.” — Bill Gaede, physicist, 2008

  • loonunit

    I can’t believe someone just used Chip Arp as an example of scientific integrity. That go so far into ludicrous that it crosses the line back into awesome.

  • Q

    Don’t do that again! The title almost killed my hope;)

  • OilIsMastery

    loonunit, You don’t believe in peculiar galaxies? I take it you’re a Newtonian who believes in fixed stars, gravity, and Divine Providence?

  • chemicalscum

    ts makes a reasonable point and this column descends in to offtopic irrelevancy.

    Obama from the the point of view of natural science has made a set of appointments. The combination of medieval superstition and and perverted science representing certain big business interest will hopefully have lost its influence in the White House.

    However those appointees from the dismal science come from a past just as locked into the voodoo ideology of neoliberalism which as Stiglitz (2000 winner of the Nobel economics prize) pointed out is just political ideology. The Obama appointments in the foreign policy area leave little sign of improvement there either.

    Obama may yet be a great President an introduce a New Deal for the 21st Century., if he’s economic advisers drop their past prejudices but then again he might not.

    On the foreign policy field the empire may change it’s spots around but it still remains a spotted beast. An Afghanistan surge that will result in more unwarranted casualties on all sides. Unconditional support for Israel’s breaches of international law and more hostility against Russia.

    The verdict is out let us see what he achieves.

  • Neal J. King

    I agree with Q:

    The title you’ve chosen suggests the opposite of what you intend. Perhaps a better title would be, “The Culmination of Hope.”

    Or, “Political Manipulation of Science takes a Holiday.”

  • Alice

    I read the title and thought it would be another “Rick Warren” thing … wondering, “darn, what did he do NOW?”

    Certainly got me to read the article, but it was misleading.

  • novaterata

    Sounds like the nation needs a comedy advisory board as well. In fact it might be important enough to just replace the Education dept. with a Williams St. / Onion setup like Diocletian had back in the old days. If it worked for the 3rd century crisis than 8 years shouldn’t be a big deal.

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  • mandeep gill

    Dan- ok, i agree with you — up to a point. i’m pretty psyched about getting back to ‘normalcy’ as commenter TS says above, and i’ve always liked how Barack speaks in high and reverent terms about science — he is clearly a man of the modern era.

    A couple of things give me pause, though:

    – For all the praise dumped on Steve Chu, i am wary, and i’ve wanted to say this for a while somewhere — i know him a bit (almost TA’d QM for him once) and know his demeanor is a bit chilly. ok, no biggie, for politics, as long as he’s competent and non-idelogically driven, right? but do remember he’s a condensed matter physicist, and he’s about to be in charge of the DOE, which is where all HEP and increasingly more astrophysics funding is coming out of (e.g. DES). how sympathetic is he to these? remember that we (in the HEP+astro community) have been suffering mightily the last few years under flat-flat (or worse) budgets.

    And no particle physicist (esp. the senior ones who are in every dept and went through that grim time) can forget how some of our ‘comrades’ in condensed matter not only didn’t come to our aid during the fights over the SSC in the early 90’s, but some *actively lobbied against it*. they may, or may not, have been the proverbial straw that broke that camel — but it left deep divisions that will take a lot to heal, not just time (perhaps something like the Obama/Clinton battles). (and, of course, we would *know* the things the LHC should be finding out the next few years, if the SSC had been completed and running years ago).

    I don’t know Steve’s positions on this (he’s had to already deal some with it being the head of LBL, with its big HEP + astro subgroups), but i did feel like putting this out there because i haven’t read anyone else say it, yet, in all the giddy euphoria.

    I just want to ‘keep one foot out’, because i’m not a part of the govt, i’m a citizen scientist and i need to call it as i see it, not support anyone just because it all looks good initially with Nobels in the mix, or mellifluous words are involved or whatever.

    – Now science is just one thing that matters (the most to us scientists, of course), andtThat last comment applies even more to some of Obama’s other recent choices and picks — several have bugged me, and the Warren thing i feel mixed about, not quite sure yet — but the Ken Salazar appointment for Sect’y of the Interior is just plain miserable, as far as i can thus far tell. Raul Grijalva was way *way* better, but appears to have been lobbied hard against by mineral, oil, gas etc. interests — and for those of us who are enviros too, this one mattered a *lot*, and it does lead us to question how bought out already to e.g. extractive industries the Obama Admin is.

    I’m not giving up all ‘faith and hope’ right now — of course, there are many good picks, and at minimum, we will finally have a *REAL* govt, now, vs. basically the sham one we’ve had for 8 crummy years. but too many of us have been told to ‘trust’ in someone’s judgement too many times by someone who turns out to be a sellout or worse to do it again.

    We will watch, and see what happens the first few months of the Obama Admin in all spheres, before coming to any firm conclusions.

    Just some thoughts and feelings i’ve been having…


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  • Tarun

    @ mandeep– Regd. Steve Chu’s appointment: shouldn’t we just be happy that finally a Physicist would be heading DOE, for the first time in decades?
    And as far as I know, funding in fundamentals of condensed matter has been as bad as in HEP in last four-five years, if not worse.

  • Gavin Flower

    I think the budget for NASA will double, to add stimulus to the American Economy, and encourage advanced science… Though I expect most of the extra money will be focussed on things near the Earth, but would also include money for heavy lift vehicles that would benefit larger interplanetary probes,

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  • Mandeep

    Tarun- yes, i very much am indeed happy about that, with the above ‘wait and see’ a bit caveats. probably Samuel Bodman (who i saw speak once) wasn’t the worst DOE head, but he def. was an chemical (and i think oil) man too, and didn’t fight so much for basic science, and probably others have more info on how he actually did.

    Gavin- Obama has def. said he wants to double basic science R&D over 10 yrs, and after watching this Youtube clip i feel more assured that he means that, but i doubt we’ll see the NASA budget doubling next year or something..!

    thx both for the comments,

  • modernrocko

    It’s good to be home again.

  • Franko

    Bizarrely inspirational.
    The planet is greening, courtesy of warming, rain, and extra CO2. The gift to Africa from America will be to reduce CO2, to starve their plants.(what do Obama’s African relatives think of this ?) — Get another bunch of science advisers, Quick.


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