The President’s Academies Address – Some Things Old, Some Things New

Last Monday’s address by the President at the National Academies goosed many in the scientific community – in a positive sense.  It’s been true that many scientists expressed optimism at having someone in the White House who supported science, not paying heed to the significant financial support enjoyed by research agencies over the post-World War II period.  That President Obama took the rare step of addressing the Academies while in office was taken as additional evidence that he would be such a President.

A closer look at the transcript of the address suggests that it is not the clean break from the past as some might think, but a continuation or expansion of efforts begun during the last Administration.  For instance, the promises to make the research and experimentation tax credit permanent, as well as doubling the budgets of the NSF, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Deparmtent of Energy’s Office of Science, are all part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address.  The doubling of these budgets started after the passage of the America COMPETES Act, so the only new part of this promise is the tax credit.  Even the creation of ARPA-E reflects part of the COMPETES Act.  These are good policies, just not new policies, and not anything unique to the current President.

However, there are several new policy goals that could influence future science and technology policy.  The promises to reduce emissions and the establishment of significant investment in energy technologies could lead to the Department of Energy becoming a bigger player in U.S. R&D policy, perhaps coming to par with the current top dogs, the NSF and NIH.  The promise to triple NSF graduate fellowships will help create several future underemployed postdocs (where is it written that the scientists and engineers we need have to have Ph.Ds?)  Roger has written about the three percent goal, and I’ve nattered on about the scientific integrity memo – the item where President Obama hangs his inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”  That framing appears to narrow the scope of a rightful place to considerations of how governments should use scientific knowledge.  The President also pushed states to partner with the federal government to increase participation in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

This post is not meant as cold water on the administration, but an engine fan meant to prevent people from overheating from all the style points the current Administration is making with scientists.  The ‘rightful place’ of the inauguration will likely be a lot closer to the status quo ante where some things are concerned, and the continuation of post-war trends in others.  In other words, the contrast in styles with the previous administration has overhyped recent changes.  Those seeking something dramatically different in federal science policy need to push harder.

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