APS News

Inside the Beltway

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Barack Obama has been in office for 100 days. It’s time to take stock.

Bo, a Portuguese water dog, has taken over the White House quarters that Barney and Miss Beazley, two Scottish terriers, had occupied for eight years with their feline compatriot, India, an American shorthair, who died in January shortly before the Bushes relinquished their home away from the ranch. It’s the dawn of a new era!

Seriously, Washington is a different town today, and it’s not due just to the changing of the first-animal guard. The mood of the city is palpably altered. Despite the national economic woes, it no longer has a bunker feeling.

George W. Bush was fond of calling himself a “war president.” And so he was in so many ways.

He began his eight years in office by declaring war on taxes and ended his two-term presidency hunkered down as three decades of bipartisan financial deregulation and unbridled faith in efficient markets came unwound. In between, he declared war on terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq, a failed American education system, and any science that didn’t conveniently fit a prevailing conservative ideology.

Even Bush partisans have to admit Washington became a pretty gloomy place. War, particularly the fatigue that sets in after years of battle, has a way of reducing vibrant emotional colors to depressingly gray monochromes.

Still, war does have a virtue.  It has a simple goal–to win. And in that regard, it has a seductiveness that’s often hard to disregard. It reduces complexity to a set of seemingly achievable objectives; it sharpens the focus of the policymaking lens; and it facilitates a communications strategy suited to the thirty-second sound bite.

But not every problem lends itself to a reductio ad bellum solution. You can’t declare war on the collapse of the financial services industry, a sinking economy, home foreclosures, soaring health care costs, climate change, energy security, mounting public debt, a potentially unstable dollar, or the morass in the Middle East–at least not if you want to make any serious progress. These are the daunting issues facing the Obama White House.

The President has a lot on his plate, and many in the world of wonks and pundits question whether he is tackling too much too fast. Concentrate on fixing the economy now and leave the rest for later, they argue. It’s better to have one major political triumph, rather than progressively chip away at the myriad individual problems, no matter the public worth.

But the Obama team responds that the issues they are trying to confront are linked. You can’t stop the economy from sinking further without re-establishing a healthy banking system. You can’t have a healthy banking system without fixing the mortgage foreclosure problem.

You can’t grow the economy and create jobs unless you contain energy and health costs. You can’t contain energy costs and have any hope of achieving peace in the Middle East unless you become less dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

You can’t stabilize the dollar unless other countries have faith that the federal debt is manageable. You can’t even think about reducing the federal debt unless you grow the economy.

And you certainly cannot grow the economy and reduce carbon emissions unless you have a coherent, manageable climate change policy that doesn’t excessively penalize consumers and businesses.

The linkages are apparent; the solutions aren’t. But what is unmistakable is the centrality of science’s role. As a discipline, it is uniquely positioned to address complex problems of the sort our nation faces. Energy security, climate change, health care, economic competitiveness, and even a stable financial services industry require the ingenuity that scientists, mathematicians and engineers can bring to the table.

The Obama Administration seems to understand the nexus and is placing a big bet on America’s scientists. The White House has vowed to double the budgets of the federal programs that support basic research, including the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Core Programs, and the National Science Foundation. The Administration has also pledged to ramp up applied energy research in the DOE and to reinvigorate science education programs in the Department of Education and the NSF.

It’s been decades since America’s scientists have heard the call to arms. It may not be a war, but it is a mobilization of the best and the brightest minds our country has to offer. And it’s a new day for science in the nation’s capital.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos