Obama's Science Report Card

A look at what the President achieved during his first term in the areas of health, space science, energy, environment, and science education

Oct 1, 2012
The Scientist Staff


In the heat of presidential elections, a conscientious electorate hopes that the nation’s most pressing issues bubble to the surface, helping to inform the decision of who is most fit to lead the country for the next 4 years. This time around, jobs, the economy, health care, and foreign policy are taking center stage in the national discussion surrounding the presidential candidates. But with all that is at stake in this election, America’s scientific research cuts across all of these sectors, and the candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, have voiced different visions for the future of the scientific enterprise.

It behooves scientists of all stripes—especially biomedical researchers, whose funding often comes from federal science agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—and members of the public who value scientific research to consider the candidates’ stances on matters of science policy. Their differing views on the benefits of scientific information and the federal government’s role in supporting research could hugely affect how the scientific community interacts with the public and with policymakers, and how US researchers earn their keep.

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But predicting the future direction of science policy is nigh on impossible. Thankfully, political candidates are increasingly apt to address science policy issues and questions as part of their unofficial campaign platforms. Just last month, Obama and Romney each answered 14 questions about science policy, from the federal government’s duty to invest in research and the effect of innovation on the economy to biosecurity and ocean health. Obama pledged to double funding for key research agencies and train 100,000 science and math teachers to prepare 1 million science, technology, engineering, and math graduates over the next decade. Romney promised to raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, to offer foreign graduate students in relevant fields resident status upon graduation, and to reform the tax code and regulatory costs to incentivize corporate funding of innovative science. While distinctly different stances are evident in the candidates’ answers, both men espouse a respect for science and the role it should play in driving economic growth and policymaking.

Campaign promises, party platforms, and answers to science policy questions, however, are one thing. A candidate’s record is quite another.

The Scientist canvassed people from both sides of the political aisle, asking them to evaluate the performance of President Obama and his administration in five key areas of science policy—health, environment, energy, science education, and space—through his first term in office. We also talked to people familiar with Mitt Romney’s treatment of science policy issues while Governor of Massachusetts (though, admittedly, the rigors of dealing with these issues on the state level differ from the challenges facing the federal government), and asked sources to prognosticate on a Romney/Ryan administration’s potential science policy stances. Here’s what we heard.
—Bob Grant


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In the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential election, candidate Barack Obama ran on a platform that included serious environmental action, promising, among other things, real progress on tackling climatechange. Four years later, one environmental policy area that has seen great progress is pollutant regulation, instated under new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. In July 2011, the EPA finalized the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would have required power plants to reduce their ozone and particulate emissions had it not been struck down by a federal appeals court in August 2012. Last year also saw the Obama Administration announce new vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, which require car and light truck manufacturers to raise the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the EPA’s new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards placed limits on power plant emissions when they came into effect this April.

 

 

Credit: © C.J. Burton/Corbis

 

“Both the car standards and the mercury restrictions are long overdue,” says David Goldston, senior advisor for the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “They’ve been delayed for decades.” Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters Tiernan Sittenfeld says those policy plays are “all in the spirit of looking at what the science tells us is necessary to protect public health and the environment.”

All these regulations have been drawn up by an EPA under constant fire fromcritics wary of what they characterize as the agency’s expanding regulatory reach. Obama has staunchly defended the agency’s role, stating in a speech to EPA employees in January 2012: “Because of you, across the board, we’re cutting down on acid rain and air pollution. We’re making our drinking water cleaner and safer. We’re creating healthier communities.”

While the vehicle fuel standards represent real greenhouse gas restrictions, David Victor—whose research at the University of California, San Diego, focuses on how the design of regulatory law affects issues such as environmental pollution and energy markets—thinks Obama could have done more to push for climate change legislation. “You really need new legislation to make a dent in the mission,” Victor says. “I think [the Obama Administration] made the legislative process too complex; they didn’t put a high enough priority on climate.” Sittenfeld also expresses disappointment that Obama backed down on another environmental policy issue—smog standards. The President shelved tighter restrictions on cities, citing economic considerations.

Fossil fuel extraction has also been a topic of interest over the past 4 years, with discussions focusing on the huge damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the boom in natural gas drilling in some states, and proposedpipelines like Keystone XL, which Obama rejected. To many, Deepwater Horizon represents the environmental dangers of pushing oil drilling into new offshore areas, such as Arctic waters, where the Obama Administration’s interior department will grant new permits to oil companies with drilling to begin in 2016. “[The Obama Administration] has carried out some important protections, but they have been more open to exploitation of public land than we would prefer,” says Goldston. “The Arctic is the clearest case of that.” While some new National Monuments have been established under Obama, including Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California—both large open areas with ecosystems threatened by development pressures—Sittenfeld says he would also like to see wilderness protection for Arctic sites, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

—Hayley Dunning


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Orchestrating the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 was the defining legislative accomplishment of Barack Obama’s first term as President of the United States. It’s also one of the hot-button issues of the 2012 presidential election campaign. The comprehensive legislation seeks to expand coverage to approximately 32 million uninsured Americans while attempting to reduce the costs and improve the quality of health care. It will also boost revenue for Medicare and Medicaid by instituting significant reforms to those programs.

 

“There’s no question that the passage of ACA is monumental,” says Ellen Shaffer, codirector of the nonpartisan Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health. “This has been the biggest development since Medicaid and Medicare [were established] in 1965.”

 

Credit: © Nancy Louie/istockphoto.com

 

Among the health-care law’s strengths, says Linda Spears, Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, is the inclusion of adults under the age of 26 in their parents’ health plan. It is estimated that the law helped 3.1 million young adults retain coverage in the first year and a half since it was implemented. Many would have otherwise been stuck in health-care limbo after graduating college and before landing a job with health benefits.

But “the picture on reproductive health care is mixed,” Shaffer adds. In implementing the ACA, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandated that insurance companies must cover contraception without a copay for insured women. But HHS also overturned the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of selling over-the-counter emergency contraception for people under 17. Shaffer says she sees that move as the Obama Administration “hedging their bets on support for women’s reproductive health.”

The law still faces the serious logistical problem of guaranteeing quality health care to the expanding pool of beneficiaries, says Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health. “Just having insurance coverage doesn’t mean you’ll have access to a physician in the near future,” he says, adding that the current health-care infrastructure is unable to adequately handle the influx of new patients. “This unfortunately devolves into a question of rationing,” he adds.

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says that the Obama Administration has made other key contributions to the nation’s public-health system beyond the ACA. These include lifting the ban on human embryonic stem cell research, devoting $8.2 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and overhauling the food-safety industry through the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, which plans to create five new centers dedicated to food-borne illnesses and grant greater authority to the FDA to issue food recalls, among other things.

But not all of the Obama Administration’s health-based initiatives have been as successful. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, for example, fell short of its promise to limit the health damage done by tobacco products in the U.S., Ross says.

Nevertheless, “this has been an amazing 4 years in terms of what the administration has done,” Benjamin says. Obama has “reestablished the credibility of science in decision making,” he adds. “I hope all administrations in the future continue to do that.”
—Cristina Luiggi 


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Anyone concerned about the state of science and math education in the United States needs look no further than 2009’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which ranks countries around the world according to their students’ achievement in math and science. According to the report, the United States ranks #23 in science and #31 in mathematics among the 60 countries and 5 other jurisdictions (such as Hong Kong and Dubai) included in the assessment. Countries that top the U.S. in both math and science include Finland, Estonia, and Slovenia.

 

To address this dismal state of affairs, President Obama has focused on improving the country’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. “He has been one of the most outspoken presidents on this issue,” says Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and programs at Research!America. “He’s faced some incredible obstacles.” But, she adds, “his ideas have been bold.”

 

Credit: © Rob Lewine/Tetra Images/Corbis

 

In March 2010, the Obama administration released its blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which had been renamed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. The administration proposed that $206 million be channeled to high-need schools to improve their STEM teaching and that $300 million go to an Investing in Innovation fund that awards grants to schools demonstrating improvement in student achievement. However, most of the provisions to strengthen STEM education were excised from the legislation, although the bill has yet to be finalized. Even if Obama is reelected, he may face the same difficulty in pushing science-focused initiatives through the legislature, says Dehoney. “There’s such skepticism about things like global warming and evolution that it puts a taint on science as a whole,” she says.

President Obama has had more success in areas where congressional approval is not a prerequisite, such as his public-private partnerships that aim to bring the expertise of the science and technology sectors into the classroom. Through a nonprofit organization called Change the Equation, CEOs mobilize other business leaders to help improve STEM education in pre-K through grade 12 classrooms by contributing funds to existing programs, developing new partnerships, and engaging in advocacy.

In 2009, the president also announced his appointments for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group comprising leading scientists and engineers, which drafted an executive summary of five major goals and best practices to improve STEM education. “Since then there have been a few initiatives that have been acted on,” says Jodi Peterson, co-chair of the advocacy group STEM Education Coalition.

PCAST has called on colleges and universities to produce 1 million additional college graduates in science and math through inquiry-based learning and early preparation in math skills. Additionally, in this year’s Department of Education budget the Obama Administration dedicated $100 million of its Teacher Incentive Fund to creating a STEM Master Teacher Corps, which would give the best science and math teachers up to a $20,000 salary boost for sharing their secrets of classroom success. This year will only support 50 teachers, but if his request goes through, that number could increase to 10,000 teachers over 4 years.

In addition to these initiatives, President Obama has repeatedly mentioned the importance of STEM education and retraining for maintaining our technological vitality in his State of the Union addresses, invited the winners of several science fairs to the White House to show off their experiments, and promoted a National Lab Day across the country. More than anything, though, Obama has “changed the tone of the conversation to say science is important,” says Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

—Edyta Zielinska


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In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama said that he would make energy policy his #1 priority if elected President. For a variety of reasons, that promise didn’t quite materialize. As the tide of partisan rancor rose in Washington, DC, soon after he took office, Obama’s optimistic visions of a new energy economy—replete with solar cells and windmills—began to fade.

 

But was it a lack of political will or political skill that prevented Obama from achieving his energy goals? According to Tom Konrad, an independent clean-energy stock portfolio manager and blogger, it was the latter. “Did [Obama] get the science right? The answer is yes,” he says. “Did he get the policy right? Somewhat. Did he get the politics right? No.”

 

Credit: © Gillian Blease/gettyimages

 

Konrad says Obama “spent his political capital” on health-care reform, leaving few bargaining chips for dealing with issues such as establishing cap-and-trade carbon credits, which would allow American corporations to generate more or less emissions, as long as total emissions for the country stayed at or below a predetermined level. A 2009 bill that would have established such a system died in the Senate after being narrowly passed by the House of Representatives. But, Konrad adds, Obama is “pushing us in the right direction” with regard to weaning the country off fossil fuels while encouraging the development of alternative energy sources, as reflected in Obama’s continued requests for increases to the Department of Energy (DOE) budget.

Indeed, through both annual budget requests and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama has devoted billions of dollars to energy research and has offered tax credits to home and business owners for making buildings more energy efficient, among other initiatives. “Having that clear commitment and clear funding for clean-energy technology has played a significant role in the shape of the market today,” says Robert Kopp, a Rutgers University earth systems scientist who served as a DOE policy fellow for the Obama Administration from 2009–2011.

But, much to the chagrin of fervent environmentalists, the Obama Administration hasn’t abandoned fossil fuel development, recently showing support for natural gas drilling operations and for plans to develop offshore areas for oil and gas drilling. (See Environment Report Card on page 36.) For example, the Administration announced earlier this year that the Department of the Interior would sell leases for oil companies to drill off the northern coast of Alaska, and this past June it granted final permits to Shell for other Arctic drilling operations. After the expiration of the 6-month moratorium on new deepwater oil-drilling permits triggered by 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Obama Administration also resumed leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the administration has okayed seismic testing of areas off the Mid-Atlantic Coast to evaluate the viability of gas and oil drilling there.

While many would rather no such offshore drilling occur at all, Hope Babcock, codirector of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, notes that at least the Obama Administration is being cautious about it, requiring extensive impact testing before the next round of Arctic drilling permits are issued in 2016. “They shouldn’t be in Alaska developing offshore oil and gas,” she says. “But by God, they’re regulating the hell out of it.”

Though Obama wasn’t able to make energy his primary focus during his first 4 years in office, he has taken steps in the right direction, Babcock avers. “Obama is delivering what he said he would deliver,” she says—“a balanced energy program, pushing alternatives, but not stopping traditional modes of energy delivery.”

—Bob Grant


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In April 2009, when President Obama announced his plan to double the budgets of “key agencies,” including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, NASA was left off the list. In fact, for the past 4 years, the Obama Administration has been generally hands-off with regard to space science, which came as a surprise given the President’s demonstrated emphasis on science and technology.

 

“The Obama Administration has not focused on NASA science at all,” says Bethany Johns, the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society (AAS). “NASA’s budget has stayed relatively flat.”

 

Credit: © Iurii Kovalenko/istocphoto.com

 

But that changed for the worse earlier this year when the Administration released its fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, in which Obama would see NASA’s robotic planetary science program cut by some $300 million, or 20 percent. This drop in funding  compelled the U.S. to drop out of upcoming missions to bring back samples from the surface of Mars, even after the recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover captured the public imagination this summer.

“[It was] rather unexpected and surprising,” says solar and space physicist Dan Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “This has been one of the most high-profile and one of the most successful aspects of NASA’s portfolio.”

Some speculate that the anticipated success of the Mars Space Laboratory mission was behind Obama’s decision to cut NASA’s planetary science program. Now that the Curiosity rover has landed, the logic goes, scientists can receive data from the Red Planet with only minimal operating costs. But to planetary scientists, such remote sensing can’t beat Earth-bound research done on samples retrieved from space. “The science that you can do in a lab here on Earth [with] samples from a planet is a lot different than the type of science you have to do in situ on the surface of Mars,” says Johns.

Baker thinks the cut could simply be the Obama Administration’s way of letting the planetary-science community know that the National Academies’ Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a ranking of planetary exploration priorities for 2013–2022 by a committee of scientists, is a bit unrealistic. The plan’s Mars missions, for example, “represented a multibillion dollar investment that would have to be made over the course of many, many years,” he says. “The Office of Management and Budget felt that . . . this represented too large and too dramatic a long-term commitment for one component or one approach to planetary science.”

To his credit, the President has been upfront about his decision not to increase the budget for basic space science research, instead focusing more on commercial spaceflight and eventual human exploration—an effort that could get a nearly 6 percent bump if his proposed 2013 budget is approved by Congress—and space technology to support development of space exploration equipment, which is slated for a 22 percent increase.

“[He’s] kept his promises,” says Kevin Marvel, executive officer at AAS. “But he didn’t really make any promises about the kinds of space science that we at the American Astronomical Society are concerned with.”
—Jef Akst