Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Change and Progress

When we had our panel discussion following the screening of The Atom Smashers at the Museum of Science and Industry, John Conway talked about the cautious optimism they were feeling about Barack Obama. So far, I can only imagine John and others are pinching themselves to make sure they're not dreaming. First of all, he has answered lots and lots of science questions, and many of them substantially. "This is the first time we know of that a candidate for president has laid out his science policy before the election at this level of detail," says Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate2008, as quoted in this Wired article. Otto goes on to say that he "thought they were very substantive for this point in the campaign, and surprisingly detailed."

And John mentioned one thing in particular: Obama clearly stated that his administration "will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade."

Doubling is good!

But just as important as many of those detailed answers about policy, and perhaps moreso, are some statements that indicate the huge ideological shift that will take place. Consider the fact that he believes the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research "have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations."

And this: "I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees."

And this, said just yesterday: "my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

When did he say this? During the announcement that he was appointing Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as the Secretary of Energy. And, yes, the Department of Energy is the funding agency for ... Fermilab. And Fermilab is happy... here's what Pierre Odonne, head of Fermilab (and someone we interviewed twice) has to say about it:

President-elect Obama’s nomination of Steve Chu to head the Department of Energy is an exciting prospect for us within the community of DOE national laboratories. For the first time in the history of the DOE, a distinguished physicist has been nominated to take the helm. Steve Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics and is currently the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is passionate about science. Even while serving as laboratory director he has kept a very active research program with students and post-docs, inquiring into fundamental processes in cell biology using new molecular and atomic techniques. One has to go back 50 years to the DOE’s grandparent agency, the Atomic Energy Commission and the leadership of Glenn Seaborg to find a scientist of such distinction at the helm.

Talk about change and progress!


tickmeister said...

Unfortunately it appears that the Wall Street money changers in co-operation with clueless and corrupt politicians have stolen all the money there is, all the money there ever was, and all the money there ever will be. My personal fear is that Fermilab and CERN will join the supercollider in mothballs as the entire world economy swirls down the crapper. My only hope is that I prove to be too dumb to understand what is happening.

Clayton said...

You may be right. MY personal fear is that somehow they'll just re-configure CERN and Fermilab to be enormous circular printing presses, colliding protons and anti-protons in order to create new money now that they've burned through all the existing currency. Only problem for the rest of us is that the new twenty dollar bill will be only a few atoms wide, so nobody except the department of defense can actually spend it.

Cantwell Carson said...

Hi! I wanted to say... awesome documentary. I wish there were 50 more people doing what you do for basic science. If I had seen this movie five years ago, I might have stayed in physics. Keep up the good work. "The Mechanical Universe" got me into physics, and stuff like this will keep the next generation interested.

As for Obama, I'm graduating with my PhD in May. If I wanted riches I wouldn't be in research, but it would be nice to feed my family.

Thanks again. And keep me informed on future projects.