Obama And Science: What's On The Agenda? With the election behind him, President-elect Barack Obama is beginning to assemble his transition team. From energy policy to heath care, how will Obama approach science, technology and health issues? Which programs do you think should be on his agenda?
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Obama And Science: What's On The Agenda?

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Obama And Science: What's On The Agenda?

Obama And Science: What's On The Agenda?

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You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, I am Ira Flatow. In just a few months, President-elect Barack Obama will be moving in to the White House, if you heard his press conference today, you know he's facing his share of headaches trying to manage two wars, a tanking stock market, a housing crisis, a deepening recession. So, will he have time to talk about science priorities? That's what we're going to be talking about because during the campaign, Obama pledged to double funding at the National Institute of Health over the next 10 years. He also called for the gradual investment of $150 billion in clean energy technologies like wind farms, plug-in cars, solar arrays, and a sun belt. And over 60 U.S. Nobel Prize winning scientist have flocked to support Obama during his campaign saying he was the right candidate to juggle tough issues like climate change while ensuring an American edge in science and technology.

Change has come to a certain degree, but will Obama be able to meet those soaring expectations for science? We heard a lot about Joe the plumber, but what about Joe the scientist or Joe the science teacher? What about the president's science adviser? Think about that, who you like to see as the science adviser? So for the rest of the hour, we're going to be taking your calls and what you think the biggest science challenge will be for the president-elect facing him immediately. Innovation, ocean health, stem cells, a new space program, give us a call 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. We're also on Second Life and we're Twittering. As we talked about this earlier, you can Twitter a conversation by Twitting your ideas@scifritter, just write the at sign followed by scifritter. My next guest had been running a vote on those topics on wired.com. And we're going to talk about how the votes going so far. Brandon Keim is a science writer for Wired and a freelance science and culture writer based in Brooklyn. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. BRANDON KEIM (Science Writer, Wired.com): Please to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: What kinds of things have been showing up on the web page?

Mr. KEIM: Well, the things that people seemed to have cared most deeply about is energy. I'm actually surprise to find that climate is not a significant an issue as one might think, and I don't know if that's because our demographic is really more practical than anything else and just figures all right, climate's an issue, but energy is really where we're going to solve it.

FLATOW: Well, I guess that is sort of interrelated. Aren't they? If you go to green energy, then you might help abate the climate problem.

Mr. KEIM: Well, there's really no way we can abate the climate problem without green energy.

FLATOW: Exactly. 1-800-989-8255. We want to know what you think would be some of the big issues. OK, they said energy. What else are they talking about?

Mr. KEIM: People also care very deeply about education which is interesting to see because that is such a foundational aspect of science. They also care very much about research itself and I believe Obama has actually promised not only to double the NIH budget, but also to double basic research funding at the Department of Defense and at the National Science Foundation, really just going across the board with it. And if you can do that, that's a wonderful think because I think that it's difficult to sell science sometimes, and people will say, well my God, you know, my mortgage is coming due, and I my 401(k) is falling apart and why are we funding research on jelly fish? And of course, it turns out to be very important and maybe that's what can drive the new economy.

FLATOW: Let's go to Sibil(ph) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hi, Sibil.

SIBIL Caller): Hello, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: I think you're the first caller we've ever had from Tuscaloose.

SIBIL: Well, probably but I would tell you I teach on the graduate school in the Library Science school and my students in my class listen to your broadcast, your podcast or live, and then we talk about it. I'm teaching Information Resources in Science and Technology, and I really think education is critical to the future for our country as well as the disciplines.

FLATOW: And do you think that should be at the top of the list?

SIBIL: Well, I think no, not necessarily at the top. I think the top priority for me is that we should balance the money that we're spending between basic and applied science, because I think both of them are important. We also should emphasize the education of not only our scientists and engineers, but our teachers of science as well. And finally, for those librarians of the future, I would like to see some money put aside for teaching the librarians because they are important part in that whole process.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Well, those are great suggestions. As a teacher, do you see enough science teachers going through your university?

SIBIL: No, these students that I'm teaching actually have are liberal arts students. So, we spend a great deal of our time talking about the importance of science, how it fits in to their daily lives and how, you know, how they can use it. And it's wonderful to see that they all catch on, even though there are History and English - it's a graduate program. They have undergraduate degrees in History and English fields a lot of times, but they're excited about it.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for calling.

SIBIL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

SIBIL: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Science education. That was an interesting call.

Mr. KEIM: I just want to say it's really nice to hear science librarians get the shout out that they deserve because they're taken for granted, and they're actually very important in disseminating information among students. But there's no question that training science teachers is very important, and having a science education. Not only to produce the engineers and the scientists we need, but also to have a scientifically literate populace is good.

FLATOW: We have a lot of suggestions from our Twitter. Tweets are coming in, they're flooding in like crazy. Let's see if we can take some suggestions. Nick Benson says Obama's first priority must be keeping weaponized bacterial machine technology from falling into the wrong hands. Interesting suggestion.

Mr. KEIM: It is an interesting suggestion and also, quite relevant in light of what's happened with Anthrax attacks since September 11, 2001. And I do think that when it comes to basic research funding in issues on national security or applied research also, or national security, that it's very important that research priorities are as sustainable, for the lack of a better word, that they can be. That we not just say OK, maybe in the future we'll be attacked with some terrible pathogens so in order to defend against it, let's make it first.

FLATOW: Mama Loves Right, I hope Obama provides funding to find new cures to diseases - this is important - loosen stem cell restrictions.

Mr. KEIM: I think that will happen as soon as he takes the office. I don't think there's any question about that. We'll see that the federal limitations on embryonic stem cell that are now in place will be lifted, and those states that are funding stem cell research and have established that infrastructure are really going to benefit from that, as will people down the road.

FLATOW: Jeff in Cincinnati. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

JEFF (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JEFF: I just want to say I think that Michio Kaku would be a good choice for the adviser.

FLATOW: Science adviser, Michio Kaku.

JEFF: Yes. He's a renowned quantum physicist and a futurist.

FLATOW: Right. Interesting.

JEFF: He has just has a great way, I believe, of getting pretty extensive scientific knowledge so just an everyday person - so that they can understand it.

FLATOW: That's great. There are a lot of popularizers of science, a lot of astronomers and physicists you could mention, but you picked him out.

JEFF: Yeah. Because I believe quantum physics is like the future science that's going to revolutionize everything, and it'd be great to have someone like him on the staff that's so knowledgeable about it.

FLATOW: Well, thanks for calling. I could think of other names like Lawrence Krauss, who's also worked the physics of Star Trek as a physicist. You can also have Neil de Grass Tyson, who's another great popularizer of science.

Mr. KEIM: An excellent one there. I'm trying to think. I'm blocking a little bit when it comes to popularizers of life science. But even Craig Venter, although he has a job to do, he would be a great guy to talk about biology.

FLATOW: Craig Venter, a lot of Nobel Prize biologists who come to mind.

Mr. KEIM: Very much and the fellow who just won the Nobel Prize for his work on jelly fish, it'd be great to get him out there explaining to people why basic research is so important.

FLATOW: Harold Varmus.

Mr. KEIM: No question. Well, he is an Obama science adviser right now so he's already in the inner circle.

FLATOW: Tony Fauci, Anthony Fauci.

Mr. KEIM: Anthony Fauci, also.

FLATOW: He does such great work at NIH, you don't want to move him. Sometimes, you don't want to move these people out of where they're doing their best stuff. Neil Lane was once the science adviser, I think, before.

Mr. KEIM: Really?

FLATOW: I think he was back in the day when they were taking him pretty seriously.

Mr. KEIM: I did know that. Could I actually ask your permission also just to backtrack for a second on stem cells? I think this slipped my mind at the time. California has some very wonderful and progressive experimental regulations in place on what to do with stem cell research once it's been funded, and to make sure that that research, the fruits of that research becomes affordable to people. And I would love to see that done at the national level. I think stem cell research is fantastic but let's make sure that we can actually afford to grow new hearts and new limbs and treat the diseases.

FLATOW: Aaron in Morehead City, North Carolina. Hi. Welcome.

AARON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for putting me through. I guess my comment is really just a follow up on a statement just made which is that the most important thing that a president can do is really reestablishing the link between policy and science. There's so many great scientists out there, and the science tends to move a lot faster than a policy does. And as a result, in the last eight years, when you break that link, change is hard to come by. But I think if we start listening to the scientists, both in the government and the private sector, we can move policy forward a lot quicker.

FLATOW: So linking policy and science again.

AARON: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: And did you think you sort of lost trust in science and politics?

AARON: Well, I think there's just been a disconnect. There's been a lot of partisanship interjected into science that occurs at the federal level and as soon as we start breaking down those partisan barriers that the president-elect promises to do, I think we could start seeing a lot of progress in science that's already been completed and research that's already been done.

FLATOW: OK. Thanks for the call.

Mr. KEIM: I'm very happy you brought that up. That's actually the question of linking science and policy and also, just having integrity in federal research. It didn't start with the Bush administration by any stretch, but in the last eight years, we've seen the politicization of federal science and everything from climate change, of course, to the status of polar bears, to infant formula guidelines. It's just across the board and then when it comes to the federal advisory committees that inform many of our decisions, we've seen independent experts often pushed aside in favor of people from the industries, or who have conflicts of interest, and there's a lot of trust to be built there. And once that trust is built, then we can inform the policy with good science.

FLATOW: We have a tweet from Sick Days who writes how about a broadband internet for everybody? Make sure everybody in our nation - everybody has broadband internet coming.

Mr. KEIM: I won't complain, especially if I can pay less than I do now.

FLATOW: Another twit from Jinny Cloe who writes do you think Obama will address the evolution argument? And if you do, how?

Mr. KEIM: I don't think he'll need to at this point. I think that's something that's been front and center in the cultural wars and of course, when Sarah Palin became the vice presidential candidate it flared up again. But really, it's not going to be an issue outside of a handful of states where initiatives are put forth in order to make creationism a part of the curriculum to the extent that it will be placed alongside - or to the extent that theory of evolution will not be taught with the degree of certainty that it has now held in the scientific community. But I'm not too worried about it.

FLATOW: Talking about the challenges facing the president-elect this hour in Talk of the Nation, Science Friday from NPR News. Talking with Brandon Keim who is a science writer for Wired.com. He has an interesting column, an article there about what challenges do you think that President-elect Obama should tackle as he enters his first term of office. Let's go to Brandon in Fort Collins. Hi Brandon.

BRANDON: Hi. How're you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

BRANDON (Caller): Hi. My question is - it's a more general question you know. If Obama is a part of the Counsel of Foreign Relations. I feel like there's a general suppression of all science and how will he attack those longstanding borders (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Do you mean the Committee on Foreign Relations or the counsel?

BRANDON: Yeah. The Committee (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Oh, the committee, not the counsel, because there is a Counsel of Foreign Relations. That's a different group. Right. OK. And I'm sorry. How will he attack the border issues and thingsā€¦

BRANDON: Well I mean - I guess it's kind of a more political question. Is he willing to start the Vendini(ph) device, for example. That has been proven and yeah, we still pay for energy from a grid.

FLATOW: Ah. Oh, I see. OK. Well, thanks for the call. Energy and power - that's got to be one of the great topics and we talked also about investing in the infrastructure of the grid. And it's a good question about the grid.

Mr. KEIM: Most definitely, and the survival of the planet aside. If anything is going to fuel an economic resurgence right now, it probably will be Greentech. But I'll say that Obama - I believe he has pledged $15 billion per year for the next decade for a clean energy and that's natural energy sources. So I think he'll do it.

FLATOW: Nathan in Kalamazoo, are you in the car?

NATHAN (Caller): Yeah.

FLATOW: Quickly.

NATHAN: Hello.

FLATOW: Yes. Quickly.

NATHAN: I would like to recommend Francis Collins as the science adviser.

FLATOW: Francis, I'm going to let you go because of the car noise. Francis Collins as science adviser.

Mr. KEIM: Nice suggestion. That might be a little tough when it comes to the issue of evolution, but quite apart from that, he is a fantastic geneticist and I think (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: And he's able to separate his.

Mr. KEIM: Separates it very well.

FLATOW: He separates his views about that.

Mr. KEIM: I think there is nothing but respect for him within the scientific community, and actually as someone who has managed to show that it's possible to hold deep and sincere religious beliefs, and still believe in science and the methodology of science. You know that could be a good suggestion.

FLATOW: John from Santa Rosa.

JOHN (Caller): Oh, thanks for having me on.


JOHN: I've got a suggestion, and it's kind of different. But my main concern is the space program. See, I think that it's been definitely ignored way too much. And if we end up facing, which eventually we will, a global crisis that ends up destroying most of the life on Earth, I think that we need a global effort to get ourselves into a position where we could leave the Earth and actually sustain ourselves as an entity in the universe.

FLATOW: All right. So we need to really invest in getting off this planet because we're using it up.

Mr. KEIM: Well as a journalist, I would love to accompany the very first fleet that escapes our failing Earth. But I think actually an important way of framing that argument is to point to the ways in which research on that in a short term can - or research on that can provide short-term benefits in terms of trying to figure out how are we going to grow our plants in climates that are very extreme? How are we going to meet these design challenges on other planets that, really, we could put to good work on Earth while we still have time?

FLATOW: Nancy in Columbia, Maryland. You have the last word, Nancy.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I was wondering if you knew what Al Gore is doing currently, and if there was any talk of him of being on Barack Obama's energy team?

FLATOW: Good question.

NANCY: Or global warming?

FLATOW: I think so far he hasn't come up in the conversation but (unintelligible), right?

Mr. KEIM: Yeah. I've heard him mentioned at the very edges of the debate, but nobody has really talked about him as one of the leading candidates. But who knows, maybe that's actually a sign that he's a leading candidate.

FLATOW: Maybe he is because we don't talk about him.

Mr. KEIM: Exactly.

FLATOW: Under the radar. He's very clever. That's how it works. Thank you, Brandon.

Mr. KEIM: Thank you.

FLATOW: Brandon Keim on Science Friday for Wire.com and a freelance science and culture writer based here in Brooklyn, New York. And you can check out his column there at Wire.com. That's all the time we have for today. You can also go to our website at sciencefriday.com where we have the video pick of the week. Flora's got her video pick of the week. If you want to see a new wave looking at the map, the Electoral College map, we have a scientist describing how he's redrawn the map on sciencefriday.com. We're very happy for you to go over there and take a look. Thanks for all the folks who tweeted today. We started it out. It was great. We had some great success with it. Greg Smith composed our theme music and we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Maleski. Surf over to our website and you can also fritter our site. That's our name, Scifritter. You can join our sweet conversation that's still going on. That's at Scifritter. Have a great week, and we'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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