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Lander: Science's "Rightful Place" in the Obama White House

SAN DIEGO--U.S. President Barack Obama caught the attention of researchers by promising in his inaugural address "to restore science to its rightful place." At the AAAS Annual Meeting, presidential adviser Eric Lander said the Obama administration has delivered on that promise with bold new initiatives and more subtle gestures of respect for the scientific worldview.

The president got an early start by appointing a stellar group of working scientists to serve in his Cabinet and as close advisors, Lander said in his plenary speech on 20 February.

The list includes prominent environmental scientists and past AAAS presidents John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco; Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu; and top genetics researcher Francis Collins. Lander, co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), was one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project.

Obama also began the year with a significant investment in science and technology as part of his administration's economic stimulus plan. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,  which became law last February, contained more than $100 billion for S&T projects.

The president followed this commitment with an April 2009 speech at the National Academy of Sciences, where he set a goal "to devote more than more than 3% of the gross domestic product to research and development."

"You can not imagine what a...statement this is going forward," said Lander. "Given the state of the economy, these are bold commitments."

The R&D portion of next year's budget remains essentially flat compared to last year, but it still contains substantial funding for basic science, energy, and health information technology, said Lander.

Lander noted several ambitious new S&T programs created this year to encourage innovative R&D and move toward an economy powered by clean energy. The Advanced Research Projects Agency in Energy (ARPA-E), inspired by the Defense Department's innovative DARPA group, has already funded a unique set of projects from new battery storage to biofuels extracted from algae. The new National Institute of Food and Agriculture will encourage similar next-generation science in food production, he said.

The president made "a important and hard set of choices," said Lander, when he decided to cancel NASA's Constellation's program to return to the moon. But the decision has paved the  way for "nothing less than a complete scientific overhaul of the space program,"  he said, that includes new launch technologies and a significant role for commercial partners.

"As a kid who stayed home from school to watch NASA launches in the 1960's, this is closer to the NASA that I saw in the future," Lander said.

Science was also a key part of Obama's renewed outreach to the Muslim world, beginning with a June speech in Cairo where he proposed new collaborations between American scientists and researchers in Arabic-speaking countries. The president, said Lander, understood that the "common language" of science could best "express the aspiration to leave a better world for our children."

Obama expanded the U.S.'s science diplomacy efforts with the November 2009 appointment of the first U.S. science envoys, a group that included Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and Science Translational Medicine 's chief scientific adviser, Elias Zerhouni.

The diplomacy efforts, said Lander, were one of many subtle signs throughout the year that the Obama administration was attuned to the culture of science. The careful language that Obama used in March as he opened up new stem cell lines for research--encouraging solid research without promising cures--"was reflective of the right way to talk about science," said Lander.

He cited similar examples in the president's remarks on scientific integrity, the importance of basic science, and the administration's strong support for science and mathematics education.

At the White House launch of "Educate to Innovate," a national campaign to help students excel in science, technology, engineering, and math, Obama said "scientists and engineers should stand side-by-side with athletes and entertainers as role models" for young people, Lander recalled.

The first 13 months of being a presidential adviser--"13 years," he said at first, with the audience laughing at his slip of the tongue--contained a few rough spots as well. The federal government's response to the H1N1 virus outbreak, which he called "the best ever mounted against a pandemic," was a particular lesson in Washington's ways.

Lander said the PCAST group was given three weeks to evaluate the government's epidemic response plan. Their final report contained several potential "scenarios" for the epidemic, in which the number of potential deaths ranged from 30,000 to 90,000. Although PCAST thought it had adequately explained that these were just possible outcomes, the White House press office warned that the media would focus on the numbers as real predictions.

"I must say," Lander chuckled, showing a slide of newspaper headlines warning of 90,000 H1N1 deaths, "that the White House media office knew what it was talking about." But he was encouraged that the White House respected the scientists' wishes to keep the scenarios in the report instead of asking them to be removed.

Energy, the economy, and education will continue to dominate the president's S&T agenda in 2010, Lander said, noting that the PCAST members are already working on initiatives in health information technology, nanotechnology, vaccine production, carbon offset technology, and science diplomacy.