US science policy: Under new management

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Posted by Colin Macilwain ( on January 01, 2002 at 12:04:32:

Nature 414, 839 (Dec. 20/27 2001) Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

US science policy: Under new management


Few relationships are more central to the progress of science than that between a US president and the nation's researchers. Rarely has this relationship got off to such a bad start as during George W. Bush's first few months in the White House.

What annoyed many researchers was Bush's failure to fill the top scientific positions in his administration, combined with his determination to push ahead with a series of policy moves that conflicted with the perceived scientific consensus.

The Bush administration's slow start at filling hundreds of key positions across the government came about because of the initial delay in determining the outcome of last year's presidential election. But as the months rolled by, the failure to nominate a presidential science adviser, on paper the most important scientific position in the US government, began to cause disquiet.

Of the other leading science posts, at the start of 2001 only one was occupied by someone who wanted to stay in the government Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation. Dan Goldin, the administrator of NASA, was prepared to remain for a short period only; the directorship of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had been vacant since 1999.

In this administrative and advisory vacuum, Bush adopted controversial policies on a series of issues in which science has an important stake, including climate change and ballistic-missile defence.

The decision in March not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to combat global warming, was not a complete surprise. But the absence of consultation, and the failure to develop alternative approaches to the problem angered many researchers particularly coming in the wake of a budget request that proposed deep cuts in environmental science.

Ballistic-missile defence, meanwhile, quickly moved to the top of the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda despite concerns raised by physicists about the plan's feasibility, and the wisdom of abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to prepare for its deployment.

Bush's bullish approach was tempered somewhat by the defection in May of a Republican senator a move that lost the president's party control of the upper chamber of Congress. But it took the events of 11 September to forge better relations with the scientific community.

Bush's actions since then have increased his standing with the American public scientists included. And researchers are pleased that physicist John Marburger has finally been confirmed as Bush's science adviser.

But the relationship between the research community and the Bush administration remains uneasy. Space scientists, for instance, are troubled by the appointment of a NASA administrator whose overriding priority is budgetary control (see page 841). For biomedical researchers, meanwhile, the continuing leadership void at the NIH remains a source of concern.

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