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Scientists Hope Obama Continues Support for Basic Research

By New York Times, Published: November 12, 2012

Martin Chalfie was one of 68 Nobel laureates who endorsed President Obama last month.

And now that Mr. Obama has been re-elected, “I’m elated,” said Dr. Chalfie, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia who shared the Nobel Prizein Chemistry in 2008. “I was particularly happy that in his victory speech, he again emphasized the importance of science and education.”

But the particulars of Mr. Obama’s science goals for his second term are not known. Neither he nor his opponent, Mitt Romney, spoke much about the topic during the campaign, but given Mr. Romney’s promise of cutting taxes, the presumption was that he would have proposed deep cuts in science spending.

“All the indications are that the discretionary budget would have been a prime cut of beef on the chopping block,” said Michael S. Lubell, a physics professor at City College and director of public affairs at the American Physical Society.

Indeed, not much may change in science policy in Mr. Obama’s second term, and for many scientists like Dr. Chalfie, that is a good thing.

The expectation is that Mr. Obama will continue pushing for many of the same priorities as he did during his first term, like robust financing of basic research, especially in energy. “I would expect those priorities to continue,” said Matthew Hourihan, director of the research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mr. Hourihan said Mr. Obama’s support for science and technology research “has been fairly strong,” although he was not able to fulfill campaign promises from 2008 to double research financing at many agencies.

As with other issues in Washington, it is not clear whether Mr. Obama will be able to act on more of his priorities. The balance of power and cast of characters have not changed: Democrats control the Senate, the Republicans still hold the House.

“For the most part, we’re looking at the same power dynamics,” Mr. Hourihan said.

The greatest worry is that the so-called “fiscal cliff” will be reached at the end of the year, with the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush expiring and automatic, across-the-board budget cuts taking effect. Federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the National Science Foundation would all see their budgets drop by about 8 percent.

That would be catastrophic for researchers, Dr. Lubell said. The science foundation issues three-year research grants, so an 8 percent budget cut could translate to a drop in new grants by one-fourth. Facilities at national laboratories used by scientists would also likely be cut sharply.

On the plus side, without having to worry about re-election, Mr. Obama could perhaps undertake new initiatives.

David Baltimore, a biology professor and former president of the California Institute of Technology — and another Nobel laureate who signed the Obama endorsement — said he hoped that the president in his second term would “have the political space to take onclimate change.”

Dr. Lubell agreed. “If Romney had been elected, there is no question climate change would have been put on the back burner,” he said. “Obama will, I think, begin to address some of these things.”

NASA officials have also been pushing for a small space station that would hover over the far side of the Moon, the first human mission to venture beyond low-Earth orbit since the last of the moon landings four decades ago. It is not known what White House officials think of that idea.

Continue Reading The Article at the New York Times Here

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