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Obama offers new hope for science




Obama offers new hope for science


As George Bush exits and the inauguration of Barack Obama nears, few constituencies are as hopeful and relieved as American scientists


Barack Obama listens to Nobel physics laureate Steven Chu, the President-elect's choice for energy secretary. (Dec. 15, 2008)

When President-elect Barack Obama showed off Steven Chu, the Nobel-prize winning physicist he hand-picked to be his energy secretary, you could almost hear the American scientific community exhale, loudly and deeply – thousands of researchers, from Berkeley to MIT and everywhere in between, breathing a long, satisfying collective sigh of relief, as one.

Al Teich was one of them. Teich is the director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., a 130,000-member scientific think tank with a staunch non-partisan stance. "Though it's been harder to say that in the last eight years," Teich chuckles ruefully.

Indeed, under the Bush administration, the scientific community has been through some dark days, to say the least. And it hasn't been a simple case of diminishing funding, as is so often the issue in the realm of governmental research. No, Teich says, Obama's remarks at Chu's appointment spoke directly to the problem.

Reading between the lines, Teich seized on two of Obama's statements in particular: "(Chu's) appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science," Obama said during the press conference. "We will make decisions based on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

"If that's not a departure from the last eight years, then I don't know what is," Teich says.

Valuing science? The Bush administration has "systematically ignored, censored, misrepresented, muzzled or distorted" members of the scientific community whose findings didn't match their various agendas, said Michael Halpern, the program manager for the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific research watchdog group. After Bush's two terms you can imagine how scientists in a previously robust research community might feel a little underappreciated.

Decisions based on the facts? Post-Bush, most scientists would agree that so simple an agenda has the unfortunate sheen of being a novelty. "(Obama's comments) were obviously a slap at the (Bush) administration," says Teich, who works directly with legislators to help keep them informed on major scientific advancements and initiatives.

Under Bush, "most of the time, ideological concerns trumped science," Teich says. "Non-scientists over-ruling scientists – re-writing reports, changing positions the administration didn't like to those that ran counter to the vast consensus of scientific research, omitting findings that were inconvenient, facts that were made up – these kinds of things were rampant."

It sounds almost too ridiculous to be true, like a band of thick-headed high school jocks bullying the hapless nerds into doing their term papers for them, insisting on adding their own stamp at the end.

And in any other circumstance, you'd be forgiven for regarding Teich and Halpern for being conspiracy theorists. They're not. In scientific circles, and among scientific publications and journals, this is depressingly old, well-established news (the AAAS publishes the venerable journal Science).

Climate change and efforts to curtail industrial incursion into environmentally sensitive regions have been at the front line of the Bush administration's war against science ("Mr. Bush, or more to the point, vice-president Dick Cheney, came to office determined to dismantle Bill Clinton's environmental legacy, undo decades of environmental law and keep their friends in industry happy," The New York Timessaid in a recent editorial).

But the scientific consensus that climate change is caused largely by human emissions of carbon dioxide has been a particular flashpoint. Documented proof of deep, endemic tampering on the part of the White House into United States federal scientific agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency is a field of inquiry unto itself.

Bluntly put, says Halpern, the Bush administration systematically used its executive powers "to inject uncertainty where there is no uncertainty, and confuse the public about it."

To name but a few of the more famous cases, in 2002, the EPA's report on air pollution omits an entire section on global warming – the first such omission since it first appeared in 1996, according to the New York Times. The following year, the Timesrevealed the White House had directly and significantly editied another EPA report about climate change, prompting agency scientists to disown their own work, saying it "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus" on the pressing phenomenon.

Then, in 2005, Philip Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute working at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is found to have tampered with yet another EPA report on climate change. Leaving the White House in scandal, Cooney is quickly hired by Exxon Mobil.

But perhaps the most glaring occasion of tampering, and one that helped blow the lid off the systemic culture of meddling across various agencies, occurred in 2006. In January, lead NASA climate scientist James Hansen said the White House had forbidden him from openly discussing empiric research that suggested severe global warming risks.

The keeper of his muzzle, it was revealed, was a twentysomething White House appointee named George Deutsch. Deutsch, who had worked on the Bush campaign and had no scientific training, at the time had not yet completed his college undergraduate degree. His role at NASA, he said at the time, was "to make the president look good."

Hansen went on to say that the threat of punitive measures was not oblique, saying he and his climate scientists were told there would be "dire consequences" if the White House line on climate change was not strictly adhered to.

Enter Obama, with his promise to "value" science. "A lot of people are hopeful," says Halpern. "At the same time, scientists don't see the Obama administration as being a panacea of being able to clean things up wholesale."

After two terms of consistent agenda-mongering distorting scientific findings, Halpern has a right to be skeptical. "No administration since World War II has been able to resist the temptation to politicize science in some way," he says.

But Chu's appointment is hopeful for a couple of reasons, Teich says. For one, he's an accomplished career scientist with no political background ("He's appointed based on his qualifications," Teich says – given recent circumstances, an apparent novelty. Teich laughs. "Isn't it, though?")

Two, he's a member of cabinet, and therefore deep inside the president's inner circle – a position John Marburger, Bush's presidential science advisor, did not enjoy. Marburger also wasn't appointed until almost a year after Bush took office, much like the Food and Drug Administration, an agency with important watchdog duties which went more than a year before Bush appointed a commissioner.

Obama's appointment of Chu before he even takes office indicates the significance with which he regards scientific achievement, Teich says. "He's worked with scientists, he has a feel for it," he says.

It's a start, says Halpern. But it's not enough. His agency is calling for complete transparency from the Obama presidency with regards to its scientific agencies, after a near-decade of virtual opacity.

"What we know Federal scientists will be looking for is that government will operate in an open manner, and scientists will be listened to," he says.

Halpern cites the incoming head of the EPA in 1983, William Ruckelshaus , coming into the agency after a dark period of scandal. Ruckelshaus's first act was to send out his now-famous "fishbowl" memo, promising the agency would operate only in broad view of the public, with no secret meetings, no covert research, and no chance to be viewed as being in industry's pocket – a legitimate charge that had plagued the EPA before he arrived.

To many in the scientific community today, this will sound numbingly familiar. But Obama provides not just early hope, but action. Already, his transition team is looking into where it can use executive powers to undo a slate of Bush interventions on the environment.

A case in point is 146,000 hectares of Utah wilderness the Bureau of Land Management is set to open up to oil and gas drilling. The Bush administration has argued, with scientific backing that runs in opposition to the EPA, that it will have no impact on the environment; the Obama team is looking at cancelling the initiative wholesale.

Hope? After eight years of Bush, Halpern insists it must be tempered with caution. "One thing Bush did for science that was positive was to shake the complacency out of the scientific community by laying bare how their work could be distorted or misused," he says. "There's a lot of systemic damage that's been done to American science, and it won't be easy to pick up the pieces."

Teich prefers the glass-half-full approach. "I think there's genuine optimism, for the first time in years," he says. But looking forward, he can't resist a quick glance back. Of the Bush era, Teich speaks for all his 130,000 members with a simple, polite expression of relief: "We're looking forward to it coming to an end."


Source: http://www.thestar.com/News/article/561350




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Since 1962 I doubted on Newton's laws. I did not accept the infinitive speed and I found un-vivid the laws of gravity and time.

I learned the Einstein's Relativity, thus I found some answers for my questions. But, I had another doubt of Infinitive Mass-Energy. And I wanted to know why light has stable speed?




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