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Labs for Change: High Hopes for Obama

Harvard researchers celebrate Obama’s pro-science views

By Nan Ni and Kevin Zhou, Crimson Staff Writerss

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama’s presidential victory brought much jubilation to the streets of Cambridge, with students, local residents, and other ecstatic revelers flooding Mass. Ave. and Mt. Auburn Street to hold makeshift parties upon hearing that the junior senator from Illinois had achieved a historic victory.

But while the students on Mass. Ave may have been the most rambunctious, they were hardly the only ones celebrating the win: at 42 Church Street, researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) were hopeful that the incoming Obama administration would usher in a new set of policies to dramatically expand the possibilities for and scope of scientific research.

Indeed, that mood was reflected by Harvard scientists in several fields, all of whom said that they are optimistic that the Obama administration will place fewer restrictions on science while increasing federal support.

“I think it’s a great moment for the country because one of the things that Obama is doing is placing a greater emphasis on science and relying on different experts in different fields,” said Brock C. Reeve, the executive director of HSCI. “He’s definitely making science and investment in general a much higher priority.”

SCIENTISTS UNBOUND

Scientists and researchers across campus expressed a similar optimism.

Shortly after entering office eight years ago, President Bush decided to place sharp limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, siding with the more conservative wing of his party that considers the work to be immoral and tantamount to infanticide.

Bush’s policies have been met with howls of outrage from the scientific community, which has protested the restrictions since they went into effect in 2001.

“It’s been a discouragement for new talented individuals who wanted to come in to the field,” said Amy J. Wagers, an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School who also works with stem cells at the Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center. “They wonder if their career will be well-supported in the long term.”

“The pool of scientists has to be a renewable resource,” she said.

By contrast, Obama has long been a strong proponent of expanding government support for embryonic stem cell research, backing legislation in the Illinois State Senate to permit the research at state research institutes. His support carried over to the U.S. Senate, when he joined 40 of his colleagues in co-sponsoring a bill to direct federal funding towards embryonic stem cell research.

“I strongly support expanding research on stem cells. I believe the restrictions that President Bush has placed on funding of human embryonic stem cell research have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations,” Obama said recently. “As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines.”

After eight years of the Bush Administration’s restrictive policies on embryonic stem cell research and shrinking federal support for basic science, scientists said that they are looking forward to seeing the changes that the next four years will bring.

“We hope for greater opportunity overall and the lessening of ongoing concerns,” said Wagers. “The NIH budget itself has been shrinking, so it’s not just a problem with stem cells, but with biomedical research and even basic biological research.”

SEPARATION OF SCIENCE AND STATE

Scientists who work on environmental issues expressed similar hopes, particularly because Obama has called for increased investment into renewable fuels and strict caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

“Having a president and a vice president who actually think that climate change is a serious issue cannot be a bad thing,” said Daniel P. Schrag, the director of the Center for the Environment and a professor of earth and planetary sciences.

Environmental activists have long criticized the Bush administration’s policies of deregulation in favor of energy interests, including its abandonment of a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide.

The administration has also been accused of silencing scientific critics of its environmental policies, something that Paul R. Epstein, the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, hopes will not happen under the Obama administration.

“[The Bush Administration] has looked the other way on sustainable science, but now I am looking forward to time when health and environment concerns are front and center,” he said “Our policies in the last few years have not reflected the advice of science. I think that we will now see a very different era for the role of data and info in policy decisions.”

Sean M. Wu, an HSCI affiliate, said that he hopes not just for changes in the way the political system approaches science, but a divorcing of the two altogether.

“During the Bush presidency, there has been a lot of concern from scientists as far as the political influence on the direction of where science has been going,” said Wu. “I hope that Obama has a good science adviser that allows scientists to determine where science should be going.”

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Despite widespread optimism, Harvard scientists maintained a sense of caution about the next four years.

Reeve said that while Obama has long-term goals that are beneficial to the scientific community, he may be constrained by factors such as budgetary limits, political concerns, and the lingering effects of the financial crisis.

“What you have to take into account is the overall economic state of the country and the federal deficit,” he said. “I don’t expect that NIH or other funding sources will be turned on right away because there are many other priorities.”

Wagner also warned that no matter how large of a contrast Obama’s platform seems from Bush’s, it is always difficult to gauge the political winds in Washington.

“I think we’ll have to wait and see, since it’s always hard to predict,” she said.

—Staff writer Nan Ni can be reached at nni@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.

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