Science and Policy in the New US Administration

Last night saw the Policy Team attend a discussion organised by the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society, bringing together: Prof. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and Co-Chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); Dr Mark Walport, Head of the Wellcome Trust, and Prof. John Beddington, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government. The event was chaired by Susan Watts, Science Editor for the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’.

During the course of a very interesting 90 minutes, Professor Varmus spoke on the theme of ‘restoring science to its rightful place’, contrasting the approach of the new Obama administration with that of President George W. Bush. Obama has made it clear, from his inagural address to his willingness to meet with Professor Varmus and others, to his appointment of key scientific figures to his team, that science and technology will be at the heart of his term of office.

President Obama wants to make PCAST an integral part of the process whereby he receives information aboutt key issues in science and technology. He has produced a series of directives setting out how scientific advice to the US Government should proceed in the future; from the selection of advisors based on their scientific competence, to protection from reprisal for whistleblowers and the transparent publication of documents into the public domain, without tampering from policy-makers. All this has contributed to a positive and optimistic feeling amongst the scientific community in the States.

However, threats remain. As part of the President’s fiscal stiumulus package, designed to lift the US out of recession and combat the global economic downturn, the National Institutes of Health has been awarded 29 billion dollars, which must be spent quickly.

Mark Walport signalled his concern over such a short, sharp injection of funding, saying that science must be funded in a sustainable way over the long-term, and that researchers should not see such a boom, as has been experienced in the UK, with the doubling of science spend in the past 10 years, as an inalienable right. The successes experienced due to an increase in the public funding for science should lead scientists to recognise their responsibility to communicate the results of their research to society. Equally, the case for sustained funding must still be made to government.

Professor Beddington signalled that the UK Government is keen to put science, engineering and technology at the heart of plans for economic recovery on this side of the Atlantic. He said that although it could not be guaranteed that the science and technology allocation would be secure in the next budget, he very much hoped it would be and it was his view that the Government was taking science and technology seriously as a foundation on which economic recovery could be built, given that financial services could no longer remain this cornerstone.

Professor Beddington also highlighted his concerns that science advice to the European Commission remains sorely lacking. Of 27 member states, only the UK and Northern Ireland have a Chief Scientific Advisor. A lack of scientific advice at the European level is a hindrance to sensible, progressive and evidence-based policy-making, and as such will ultimately effect the ability of the EU to compete with North America in science and innovation.

Find further details about the work of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre online.