President Obama Leaves Broad Legacy for Science and Technology Policy

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Publication date: 
24 January 2017
Number: 
8

Among presidents, Barack Obama took an unusually strong interest in science and technology, and his administration pursued a wide array of S&T-related initiatives. However, early hopes for major expansions in R&D funding remained largely unfulfilled.

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President Obama with his science advisor, John Holdren, left, and his first energy secretary, physicist Steven Chu.

President Obama with his science advisor, John Holdren, left, and his first energy secretary, physicist Steven Chu.

 (Image credit – White House photo by Pete Souza)

WH photo, public domain

When President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address in 2009, the nation was falling into a deep economic crisis. Charting a path to recovery, Obama assigned science and technology a central role, declaring, 

We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

During the eight years that followed, Obama proved sincere in his appreciation of science and technology as critical forces in society. However, his legacy for S&T policy was shaped as much by the realities of the economic recovery and partisan disagreement as by his own convictions.

Scientific integrity and open science in the spotlight

During the presidency of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, critics often complained that Bush’s administration routinely politicized and disrespected science. In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy organization, published a report detailing the ways it believed the integrity of government science had been undermined. Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, took issue with many of these accusations. However, the charge had staying power, leading the way for Obama to make scientific integrity an early priority of his administration.

In March 2009, Obama issued a memorandum instructing government departments and agencies to develop scientific integrity policies. These policies began to appear in 2011 and 2012, with the Department of Energy issuing a policy applicable to all agency scientists only this month. Obama’s Open Government Directive, issued in December 2009, aimed to increase not only government transparency but also the availability of information produced by the government. Science-related open government initiatives gained momentum in Obama’s second term. A February 2013 memorandum set government policy for public access to federal research, and a May 2013 executive order established a policy framework for making data widely available. Agency-level open access plans followed in later years.

In the last two months, two reports appeared, one that the White House commissioned from the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute and the other by UCS, assessing the administration’s progress in ensuring transparency, scientific integrity, and access to government data. Both reports note that, while progress has been made, there remain inadequacies and further steps that ought to be taken.

Amid flat budgets, a consistent focus on innovation

When Obama took office, momentum had already been building for years to increase federal spending on R&D as a way to improve American economic competitiveness. The 2005 National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the Bush administration’s 2006 American Competitiveness Initiative, and passage of the America COMPETES Act of 2007 all rallied support behind doubling the budgets of selected R&D programs, mirroring a similar doubling at the National Institutes of Health in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On taking office, Obama approved some $100 billion for science, technology, and innovation—including $18.3 billion in one-time funding to federal R&D programs—through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Among its results, this infusion permitted the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which had been authorized in the COMPETES Act, to begin its work.

This fiscal environment was not to last, though. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 set more modest growth goals than the original COMPETES legislation. Then, as Obama assented to a congressional policy of fiscal belt-tightening through the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the implementation of budget sequestration in 2013, R&D appropriations flattened out. Overall, during Obama’s presidency, enacted appropriations for federal R&D remained virtually steady at just below $150 billion. However, the 21st Century Cures Act, which Obama signed at the very end of his presidency, did provide his medical R&D initiatives with billions of dollars in new funding, recapturing some of the promise of his early presidency.

For additional details, readers should consult the more extensive overview of R&D funding under Obama recently posted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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A figure from a Congressional Research Service report showing the 7-year doubling trajectory anticipated by the 2007 America COMPETES Act and actual appropriations.

A figure from a Congressional Research Service report showing the 7-year doubling trajectory anticipated by the 2007 America COMPETES Act and actual appropriations. Note the one-time funding boost associated with the 2009 fiscal stimulus. “Targeted accounts” included science programs at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy.

(Image credit – CRS, “An Analysis of Efforts to Double Federal Funding for Physical Sciences and Engineering Research”)

CRS publication, public domain

Funding, though, was only a part of Obama’s overarching agenda for R&D and innovation. In September 2009, the White House released the first iteration of its “Strategy for American Innovation,” which created a policy architecture for translating R&D results into the U.S.’s long-term national prosperity and the improved well-being of its citizens. This framework included strategic investments in sectors such as clean energy, as well as building up the government’s portfolio of targeted interagency R&D programs, including the BRAIN, Precision Medicine, Materials Genome, and Strategic Computing Initiatives. Obama’s emphasis on advanced manufacturing led from the formulation of preliminary recommendations in 2011 to the creation of a network of 14 advanced manufacturing institutes today.

The Obama administration also worked to deepen connections running throughout the nation’s innovation “ecosystem.” Government agencies sought to build new public–private partnerships. Prize incentives and innovation “grand challenges” became common tools for fostering collaboration and focusing attention on critical problems. The administration also encouraged the development of online platforms such as data.gov for data sharing and collaborative work. To incentivize private investment in R&D, Obama pushed making the government’s R&D tax credit permanent.

Landscape of S&T policy changed markedly

Amid the general developments in science and technology policy under Obama, there were significant changes in specific policy areas as well.

Energy policy experienced a dramatic evolution as wind and solar energy began to expand in earnest, battery capabilities improved, and hybrid and electric vehicles established sizeable market niches. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s earlier push toward a “nuclear renaissance” faltered under Obama, particularly in the wake of the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, although both the Obama administration and Congress still aspired to revitalize the industry. Obama’s Department of Energy was remarkable for having been led by two prominent physicists, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, with the latter also playing a key role in negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran.

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Continuing expansion of emerging clean energy technologies has been driven by sharp decreases in cost, as illustrated in Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s exit memorandum.

Continuing expansion of emerging clean energy technologies has been driven by sharp decreases in cost, as illustrated in Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s exit memorandum.

(Image credit – DOE)

For space policy, the early years of the Obama administration were tumultuous ones. In 2010, the administration canceled the Constellation rocket development program, and with it the goal of sending humans back to the moon in the near term. In its place, the administration set a longer-term goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. Then, in 2011, the administration also reconfigured the nation’s troubled next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program, with the first new satellite now finally set to launch in 2017. Also in 2011, NASA rebaselined the James Webb Space Telescope, adding almost $4 billion dollars to its price tag and pushing back its launch by 52 months to 2018. Since then, however, the government has been steadily gaining firmer administrative control over its portfolio of space projects.

Few areas in federal policy have been as contentious as climate change. The Obama administration consistently supported climate research across government departments, although Congress blocked certain initiatives, notably the creation of a National Climate Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In his second term, against strong Republican opposition, Obama used executive authority to implement an active climate policy, which included issuing his Climate Action Plan in 2013; using the EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding” to implement that agency’s now-embattled Clean Power Plan under the existing Clean Air Act; and ratifying the Paris climate agreement in 2016. The Obama administration likewise incorporated climate into its preparedness and resiliency initiatives, which also encompassed scientifically informed strategies for contending with hazards as exotic as space weather and near-Earth objects.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, his administration continually emphasized improving education in science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as expanding and diversifying the STEM workforce. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology completed five STEM education studies, and the White House launched a five-year STEM Education Strategic Plan while federal agencies implemented a host of new educational initiatives. Obama also indulged his own interest in science and technology in very public ways, including by hosting six annual White House Science Fairs.

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President Obama learns about inventions geared toward wheelchair users during the 2015 White House Science Fair.

President Obama learns about inventions geared toward wheelchair users during the 2015 White House Science Fair.

(Image credit – White House photo by Pete Souza)

WH photo, public domain

Obama’s interest a personal one

Writing as Obama’s science advisor this month, John Holdren credited the president’s “personal commitment to lifting up science, technology, and innovation in the national conversation and in the aspirations of young people,” and remarked that it is a legacy that could be built upon.

In his own farewell address, Obama returned to the theme of science for the last time in his presidency, remarking again on its economic importance. His tone, though, was now influenced by eight years of partisan conflict and the divisive election just passed. He observed that the same spirit of innovation, “born of the Enlightenment,” that had fueled the American economy would ultimately prove critical for maintaining the success of democratic discourse. He warned,

Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.

About the author

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