Budget, politics have roles in Obama's agenda for science

The politics of science, which has been storm-tossed for the past eight years, head for uncharted waters with the inauguration of Barack Obama.

The Bush administration has fought a long battle with the nation's scientific community over funding and philosophy with great divides forming over such issues as global warming and stem-cell research. Scientists are hopeful that Obama, who has already called for increased research spending, will bring a new dawn. But how realistic are their hopes? And can the nation afford to make them a reality?

"My administration will value science. We will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that facts demand bold action," Obama said at the nomination of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, a climate change technology advocate, as the next Secretary of Energy.

"I think we are seeing some really good first steps, appointment of people that the science community take seriously, people who value science," says environmental scientist Donald Kennedy, Stanford University's president-emeritus.

But others sound a note of caution.

"The air of anticipation in the nation's laboratories and faculty clubs is not unfounded; the danger is that it will become excessive," writes David Goldston, a former chief of staff with the House Science Committee, in a recent Nature magazine.

"Scientists are going to have to contain their insatiable appetite for dollars, and their tendency to see politicians as either with them or against them, for the current mood to survive much beyond inauguration," says Goldston.

Tipping his cap

The most immediate change may be in the White House's attitude toward global warming.

Obama has selected other key advisers who are strong advocates of taking action to address climate change. In addition to Chu, he picked Harvard's John Holdren, a climate and energy expert, to be his science adviser and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Obama has pledged to curb heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases by selling industries limited rights to release emissions, creating a "cap and trade" market. Cap and trade markets, such as the existing European Union Emission Trading Scheme, allow firms to buy and sell emission credits while keeping the total amount of emissions under an upper limit, or cap.

For the average household, a cap and trade plan in which credits are sold to polluters — and "dividend" money is returned to taxpayers — would affect power rates, boosting annual household energy costs $809, finds a recent Resources for the Future analysis. But the poorest 20% of consumers would gain an average $145 through tax breaks.

"We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050," Obama pledged during the campaign. His energy plan includes yearly weatherization of 1 million homes, $7,000 tax credits for fuel-efficient cars and putting 1 million hybrid cars on roads by 2015.

The Bush administration has not capped power-plant emissions, stressing the need for voluntary agreements and technological advances to address climate change. In 2001, President Bush renounced the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions on the grounds that it could hurt the U.S. economy and unfairly exempted China.

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