Most scientists and science enthusiasts were delighted when Barack Obama was elected President. Many felt that the Bush administration was anti-science and that the younger Obama crowd is more in tune with modern science and advanced technology.
I don't claim that the Bush administration was particularly pro-science. But in the short time that President Obama has been in office, he has exhibited feelings bordering on contempt for several technologies and technology-based industries.
Most recently, the President has weighed in on modern medical practices, suggesting that many expensive medical procedures are unnecessary (e.g., tonsillectomies) or wasteful (operating on grandmothers who, according to him, should instead be given pain killers).
Is this the same President who assures us that his proposed health care reforms will not limit our choices? It sounds like he is preparing us for greater oversight--if not outright rationing--of health care services.
The Obama administration has also taken sides on a number of scientific controversies. It's one thing to be concerned that human activity is causing global warming which, in turn, may be damaging the environment. But it's another to wholeheartedly embrace a chain of disputed theories. A genuinely pro-science administration would understand the importance of skepticism in science. The President should not be seen as discouraging critical thinking, debate, and synthesis of new ideas.
President Obama's choice for Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, is also troubling. Dr. Benjamin practices family medicine in a rural health clinic. She is about as removed from leading centers of medical research, high-tech hospitals, and the full panoply of medical specialists as one can get. I don't mind that family medicine emphasizes prevention. But the notion of family doctor-centered health care seems to hearken back to a simpler time.
President Obama has expressed hostility towards proven sources of energy such as oil, coal, and nuclear fuel. Instead, he wants us to invest in less concentrated and less reliable sources of energy such as wind, sunlight, and batteries. We don't know whether these sources can even meet our present energy needs, nor do we know the real costs (dollars, impact on the environment, etc.) of their large scale adoption.
The greatest benefit of science is that it provides an array of tools and conveniences to empower individuals. Yet most environmentalists believe we should rely more on public transportation, car pooling, bicycles, and walking.
Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that high-tech industries, if left to their own devices, would serve only a privileged few. This is simply not true. High-tech industries have demonstrated over and over that they will drive down prices, expand existing markets, and seek new markets if permitted to do so.
Does the administration's support for embryonic stem cell research and electronic medical records (EMRs) show that it is more supportive of science than the Bush administration? The Bush administration did not oppose stem cell research or even embryonic stem cell research. It opposed, on ethical grounds, federal funding of further harvesting embryonic stem cells. The Obama administration cleverly portrayed this as an "Are you for or against science?" issue as a way of dismissing legitimate ethical concerns.
Electronic medical records (EMRs) are a government bureaucrat's pipe dream. The U.S. health care industry already has the ability to share patients' medical data electronically (fax and email). Many hospital IT departments allow doctors to access patient records, including test results and scans, from any PC on the network. Many in industry believe that EMRs are already obsolete. This isn't about government prodding the health care industry to be more efficient; this is about government inventing excuses to grab more power. (By the way, the Clinton and Bush administrations also supported EMRs.)
There are two ways that the President can support science. First, by ensuring that scientists are free to investigate and promote whatever theories intrigue them. Some theories deserve to be laughed off the stage, but the marketplace and not government officials should decide. The clash of opposing ideas is essential to the progress of science.
Second, the President can demonstrate, in words and deeds, appreciation for a wide range of scientific achievements.
Sadly, President Obama seems to think he can support science by choosing winners in theoretical disputes and in the marketplace. That's not being pro-science, that's simply imposing his political views on science.