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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama Promises Science-Centric, Eco-Friendly Presidency

By: Kit Eaton

President Obama's Inaugural speech included a clutch of promises and observations that will have scientists, medical researchers and environmentalists in the US and around the world breathing a sigh of relief.

"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost," is Obama's key phrase, and it contains a multitude of subtle points.

"Rightful place" is at first a dig at George W. Bush's sidelining of scientific thinking during his two presidential terms. It's no secret that Bush's personal beliefs pushed many science issues into the background, and Obama's words suggest he holds science in higher regard for its role in our modern world. Wielding "technology's wonders" is immediately a powerful phrase underlining the benefits that science and technology can bring, and it is specifically referenced in terms of improving health care, rather than bringing economic success or just "new gadgets."

While Bush spoke of health care in both his inauguration addresses, it was in broad, political and economic terms: "We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance" came in the second, while "Government has great responsibilities for public safety and public health," in the first. Throughout his presidency "tricky" health care issues like high teenage pregnancy rates and stem cell research were dealt with from a decidedly moral, as opposed to scientific viewpoint. "From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth," is a line from Bush's second speech that underlines this--and explains why in 2006 he used the presidential veto to stop a bill that would've freed up more federal money for stem cell research.

In an interesting moment in 2005 Rep. Henry Waxman clashed very publicly with Bush's science adviser, accusing the administration of actually fudging its scientific models on climate and health care--and of underlining scientific "uncertainty" to quash research and laws with results or intents counter to Bush policies.

Climate issues were downplayed often during Bush's early years in power, and in 2002 when the EPA surprised the administration by issuing a report that supported theories that global warming had a significant human component, Bush dismissed it thus:
"I read the report put out by the bureaucracy."

President Obama, on the other hand, made a direct reference to climate issues in his speech, and gave tacit support to the theory global warming is man made: "we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet." That neatly tied global war catastrophes to the environment too.

Obama also promised to actually respond to the issue of climate change: "We will harness the Sun and the winds and soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," is a guarantee that more environmentally-friendly policies will be coming out of the White House, particularly in terms of alternative energy sources. It's impossible to "consume the world's resources without regard to effect," he noted, going on to suggest that "the world has changed, and we must change with it."

It sounds very much like the winds of change are blowing through the corridors of power in Washington, and bringing new regard for science, medicine, and the environment along with them.

[via New Scientist, image: Getty]