February 7, 2009

Scientists rejoice! Obama, the first nerd president

“We will restore science to its rightful place…”

After eight years of science as a second-class citizen in the United States under the Bush administration, President Barack Obama’s words inspire hope.

Included in Obama’s nearly $900 billion economic stimulus plan is $10 billion for scientific research and instrumentation and $6 billion to modernize academic laboratories.

So far Obama has kept his word, appointing top scientists to his cabinet including John Holdren as the presidential science advisor. Holdren is known for his work on global environmental change and policies on renewable energy.

He’s even appointed a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu, as energy secretary.

In addition to these appointments, Obama has promised to lift the ban on federal funds for stem cell research put in place by the Bush administration. The executive order to lift the ban is expected any day.

Stem cell research is a controversial topic. Embryonic stem cells require a fertilized egg, and in the view of some, the creation of life.

But many scientists see stem cell research as a way to excel medical science into the future. Stem cells have the ability to develop into all types of cells.

They could be used to regenerate organs and tissues, as well as cure certain types of cancer and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

It’s clear Obama is attempting to follow through on his promise to bring America into the 21st century.

Many scientists saw the Bush administration as backwards in terms of recognizing valid scientific data in policy-making.

Proponents of human-induced climate change have criticized Bush and his government for actively denying and suppressing scientific evidence towards a warming Earth.

In 2006, James Hansen, a NASA scientist and one of the leading climate change scientists in the world, spoke to numerous media outlets, including an appearance on the television program 60 Minutes, about how the government was manipulating scientific documents. On the program, Hansen talked about how the White House edited scientific documents to diminish the data supporting global warming.

Hansen also said he was restricted from freely speaking with the media about climate change.
Canada, too, has a dark past when it comes to catastrophe resulting from dismissal of scientific evidence.

The East Coast cod fishery was shut down two decades ago because the government refused to acknowledge decades of population data showing the impending crash of the cod population.

When the government finally acknowledged what was happening, it was too late. Twenty years later, the East Coast fishery is still in ruin.

During the Bush administration, Canada was a haven for scientists who wanted to pursue their interests in a country that embraced science.

Now that trend may reverse itself.

The 2009 Canada federal budget released last week may have some scientists heading south.
Genome Canada, one of the largest science research funding agencies in the country, was left completely out of the budget.

The President of Genome Canada, Martin Godbout, told the Globe and Mail he was confused as to why his company was left out of the budget for the first time in nine years.
Instead, the 2009 budget focused on science infrastructure, promising $2 billion for funding the repair and maintenance of academic institutions.

Although buildings are important, they’re really no use without scientists in them with enough funding to continue their work.

In a country that needs doctors and scientists, it doesn’t make sense to refuse funds to projects which may be the only chance of keeping them in Canada. Preventing further “brain drain” from the country is more important.

If scientists can’t get the funding they need to continue their research, they’ll have no choice but to go somewhere else.

If the Harper government believes ignoring the importance of scientific research is any way to run a country, it might want to think twice about the consequences.

Cassie Williams is the Halifax Commoner’s weekly science columnist.

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