Obama announces his science team

In his weekly address, President-elect Obama says:

the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources ? it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient ? especially when it?s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States ? and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.”

And it’s true, he couldn’t.

Holdren will be appointed Assistant to the President, giving him cabinet-level access to the President. He will also co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a revamped group also co-chaired by Holdren, Harold Varmus (my prediction of Obama’s likeliest choice for science advisor), and Eric Lander, a genomics researcher at MIT who was first author on the draft genome from Human Genome Project. Varmus is a Nobelist for his cancer research and a former NIH director. Jane Lubchenco is officially the nominee to head NOAA.

As Hilzoy points out, Lubchenco’s announcement has the sciencebloggers very excited. It isn’t that the others aren’t incredibly good choices. They are. They are so good as to be obvious choices (though there are other choices that would have been equally good in that sense). What makes Lubchenco’s appointment so remarkable is that she is a hard-core scientist first and foremost.

Holdren is a policy guy, which makes him a great choice, but gives him a different perspective from the scientists in the lab. Lander’s work is very important, but the development of large-scale genome sequencing is largely a technical challenge, which scientists often distinguish from the challenges in testing our broad conceptual understanding of the laws of nature. While “test tube jockeys” often produce important results, there tends to be a certain skepticism of their work. Similarly, medical research is so focused on the practical application that scientists in other fields are dubious about regarding medical researchers as being engaged in the same sort of enterprise as a theoretical physicist or a landscape ecologist.

By contrast, Lubchenco’s work as a marine ecologist is brilliant and falls squarely within the realm of “pure science.” There are practical applications to be drawn from her work, and she is an advocate for policies that would alleviate the harm she measures, but her research is directed first and foremost at understanding how the world works. That understanding how the oceans work increasingly confronts us with situations that require government intervention is shameful, but secondary to what brings Lubchenco to the lab.

Part of the sciencebloggers’ excitement simply reflects the fact that one of our own has been invited into a senior position. Another part of it, hopefully a bigger part, rests on the respect for knowledge for its own sake shown in bringing someone with that background into his sub-cabinet (her formal title will be Under-Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, answering to Bill Richardson).

That latter sense shines through in his closing words from the address:

I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.

Pure scientists live to illuminate those “things unseen.” From their vantage point, they can predict where science will lead, and where best to invest our efforts in research and in policy. Having this exceptional team of scientists from such a range of endeavors tells us a lot about how Obama will run his administration. These aren’t people who will quietly abide foolishness (one of John Marburger’s many failings as the current President’s science advisor). They will force Obama to act, as Obama’s hero put it, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

Comments

  1. #1 Ursula Post
    December 21, 2008

    I have a wonderful feeling that President-Elect Obama, understands exactly what we as a nation needs. 1. A great National leader -He gives us (as a people) confidence
    2. A great Administration (all top advisors-world class)
    3. Unification of our nation under trying times and respect for all people and
    all ideologies, science and technologies
    4. A great World leader – One who is admired and respected around the
    world

    I wish him nothing but the BEST!