News Focus2012 Election

Congratulations! Now Get to Work

Science  26 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6106, pp. 456-461
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6106.456

Regardless of his margin of victory, the president will need all the help he can get in dealing with several intractable problems.


Promises dominate political campaigns. But once the election is over, either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will have to govern.

This package examines the science-related issues facing the next occupant of the Oval Office and, for the few that have been featured in the campaign, the positions the candidates have taken on them. At the top of the president's “to-do” list will be trying to resolve the current budget deadlock; legislators will have another chance to address that next month during a lame-duck session of Congress. And while science needs funding to thrive, there are a host of other areas, including energy, education, the environment, space, and biomedicine, in which direction may be just as important as dollars.

Of course, not all wisdom resides in the White House. Next month's election will also determine the makeup of Congress for the next 2 years. So we bring you one House of Representatives race in which federal science policy is receiving an unusual amount of attention (p. 463). Another story explores new research on negative advertising, a reviled but increasingly popular mode of trying to influence voters (p. 465). And we also look at a passel of state initiatives appearing on the ballot that affect the scientific community, including a hotly contested proposal in California to label genetically modified foods (p. 464).



Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have promised, as president, to maintain U.S. scientific excellence while paring down a $1.4-trillion-a-year budget deficit. And it's the second half of the sentence that really worries the U.S. academic community. Although each man has said he believes basic research is essential for economic development, it's not at all clear how much is enough, and which areas should be emphasized.

President Obama has been proud to run on his record of support for science. He has repeatedly honored a pledge, first sounded by President George W. Bush, to boost the nation's investment in the physical sciences and engineering through a 10-year doubling of the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, although Congress has typically trimmed his annual requests for those agencies. The president has also set a goal of boosting the nation's overall spending on research to 3% of the country's gross domestic product, using federal dollars to spur private-sector R&D investment. In addition, the massive 2009 stimulus package included an unprecedented, one-time, $20 billion boost for basic research (Science, 27 November 2009, p. 1176).

As a former Massachusetts governor who has never served in Congress, Romney has no track record on federal funding for science. In speeches, he has affirmed the value of university-based research. But Romney has declined to provide any details. When he does mention basic research, it's most often in the context of energy policy, specifically, to contrast what he labels the Obama administration's misguided attempts to “pick winners” in promoting renewable energy technologies with his commitment “to spend the money more wisely.”

That ambiguity has put the U.S. academic community on high alert. Their response has been a steady stream of reports and white papers documenting how research has contributed to the nation's prosperity, and petitions urging that it not be cut. Staying the course is even more critical now that other countries have learned from the United States and have begun making similarly large investments in research, they add.

The argument that research should be buffered, if not exempt, from the overall federal belt-tightening is not a new one, of course. But the current effort to trim the massive federal deficit adds urgency.


The immediate threat to U.S. science is $110 billion in across-the-board cuts to this year's budget, divided evenly between defense and domestic discretionary spending. Under those automatic cuts, which are scheduled to take effect on 2 January, most science agencies would see their 2013 budgets shrink by 8.2% from current levels. For the $31 billion National Institutes of Health, for example, that translates into a $2.5 billion reduction. The $7 billion National Science Foundation would lose $580 million, and the Department of Energy's $4.9 billion Office of Science programs would drop by $423 million.

Those cuts, called sequestration, were intended to be a last resort under a two-step agreement struck in August 2011 between the White House and Congress to begin reducing what is now a $1.4 trillion annual deficit. The two sides shook hands on more than $900 billion in projected cuts through 2021, starting with $21 billion in the 2012 fiscal year that ended on 30 September. The law created a committee to find an additional $1.2 trillion in some combination of spending cuts and increased revenues, but last December, Congress failed to adopt the committee's recommendations. That inaction started the clock running on sequestration.

So far this year, Congress has made no headway on resolving the deadlock. In fact, it's gone in the opposite direction, extending current spending levels for another 6 months in lieu of passing a spending bill for the 2013 fiscal year that began on 1 October.

A lame-duck session after the election will give it one more chance. Although most observers aren't optimistic, scenarios include a postelection détente that starts down a path toward shaving $4 trillion off the deficit over 10 years or a 6-month delay in the effective date of sequestration.

The election results will certainly influence any decision. A status-quo outcome—a Democratic president and a divided Congress—could nudge all sides toward a compromise, while a Republican sweep is likely to mean no movement until after the winners take office in January. And if sequestration is imposed, those cuts will seriously hamper the plans of whoever is elected.

Lurking in the shadows, however, is an ugly but unspoken truth: The era of American dominance in science is over. By any reasonable yardstick—spending, Ph.D. production, publications, patents, sales of high-tech manufactured goods, or something else—the rest of the world is narrowing the extraordinary lead in science that the United States has maintained for the past half-century. And although cutting back on research might accelerate that process, no foreseeable increase in federal spending will allow the United States to recapture that large advantage.

So be wary of any candidate who says his policies will guarantee U.S. preeminence in science. That ship has sailed. In the new era of constrained choices, investing more in one area usually requires spending less in another field. All-of-the-above may work as an energy strategy. But it's no longer a reasonable expectation for federal spending on research.


Defense Research

Will the 2% solution survive? The next president will need to decide whether to honor a long-standing commitment to grow the Department of Defense's (DOD's) relatively small basic research budget by 2% annually over the next 4 years despite overall cuts in military spending.

Although basic science accounts for less than 0.5% of the Pentagon's annual budget, the $2.1 billion is a lifeline for many academic researchers. Roughly half goes to universities, and DOD is the single largest government funder in many fields of engineering, mathematics, and computer science.

Military planners say research is essential for a modern fighting force. And former defense secretary Robert Gates—who served under both Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush—promised to prevent basic science spending from stagnating. Gates is gone, however, and his successors confront the tumultuous task of figuring out how to “rightsize” the Pentagon.

The Obama administration has said cuts must be made but it will try to limit the damage to DOD's basic research programs. Romney has promised to increase overall defense spending but hasn't said whether basic science would also grow.


Energy Research

What to keep and what to trim from the Department of Energy's (DOE's) sprawling $11 billion research portfolio is the big question facing the winner of next month's election. Neither candidate has said much during the campaign about how tightening budgets (see "Funding") would affect the department's research priorities, but they have offered divergent views on the government's role in commercializing technologies.

Scientists involved in physics and fusion studies that require big, expensive machines are particularly anxious about where fundamental studies that offer little promise of immediate practical payoffs will rank among the priorities in an Obama or Romney administration. Particle physicists, for instance, are wondering if the White House will back a nearly $800 million plan to build a scaled-down version of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE). In addition to documenting the behavior of these subatomic particles, the LBNE is the best hope for the survival of the last U.S. bastion of particle physics, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (Science, 7 September, p. 1157).

The next president may also have to sacrifice one of three major projects in nuclear physics so that the others might survive. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, an atom smasher at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, is considered the more vulnerable of two existing facilities because DOE recently upgraded the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. The third, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, is under development at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

There is trouble brewing on two fronts for U.S. fusion researchers, who seek to reproduce on Earth the process that powers the sun. One formidable challenge comes from the ITER international fusion project under construction in France. The United States is expected to put about $2.2 billion into the $23 billion project over the next 8 years—meaning its annual contribution will ultimately match everything DOE now spends on fusion reactor research. So the next administration has three options: Increase the overall fusion budget, close several U.S.-based fusion laboratories, or reevaluate its support for ITER.

Fusion researchers may also be squeezed out of working on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, a $3.5 billion laser facility built for both fusion research and nuclear weapons studies. Last month, NIF scientists missed a DOE deadline for igniting a fusion reaction inside a tiny capsule filled with hydrogen fuel (Science, 21 September, p. 1444). As a result, NIF's focus is now shifting to weapons research.

It is unlikely that either Obama or Romney has strong views on these in-the-trenches science decisions, so the person serving as energy secretary could play an influential role. Nobel laureate Steven Chu hasn't said whether he expects to serve in a second Obama administration, but many Washington insiders will be surprised if he stays. Romney has made it clear that his energy team will focus primarily on ramping up domestic coal, oil, and gas production—a traditional stance for Republican administrations.

No matter who is elected, DOE's spending on efforts to commercialize new energy technologies is likely to be reshuffled. Romney has promised to eliminate loan-guarantee, tax-credit, and other programs aimed at accelerating the commercial development of nonfossil energy sources, such as solar and wind power, saying the market should decide “winners and losers.” Obama has said he'll stand by those programs—some of which were created by Republicans—despite the high-profile bankruptcies of several government-backed companies. Any decisions will require buy-in from Congress, which has its own ideas.

One thing the two candidates agree on is continued funding for DOE's 3-year-old Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which last year spent $275 million on research into emerging technologies that need a nudge to attract private investment. They are especially fond of the agency's administrative nimbleness, including its commitment to kill off projects that aren't meeting milestones.


Climate and Environment

It is hard to find two issues that more starkly highlight the differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney than climate change and environmental regulation. At the same time, whoever wins the election will have to cope with sharp constraints on his ability to implement those policies.

Obama agrees that humans are causing climate change and says the federal government should take action to curb the emission of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming; Romney says the causes need more study, and that it's not clear that the government should do anything about greenhouse gases. Obama has adopted or set in motion a panoply of new rules aimed at reducing pollution and protecting habitat from development; Romney has vowed to roll back most if not all of them, arguing they harm the economy.

Neither candidate, however, has acknowledged the dirty little secret of environmental politics: Few presidents are able to move as far or as fast on environmental issues as they claim they'd like to. Just as Obama has been stymied on a number of fronts by Congress, the courts, and political opposition from both the left and the right, Romney would face a host of obstacles to undoing present policies.

Still, there are several areas where the winner can act unilaterally. For instance, Romney could rescind with a stroke of a pen several Obama-era executive orders that require government agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make “green” purchases. He could also slow the implementation of recent rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and essentially block efforts to extend those rules to new plants.

It's less clear, however, that he could undo court rulings that have upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that those emissions “endanger” public health under the Clean Air Act and, therefore, require regulatory action. And Romney could also face legal tangles if he attempts to roll back other regulations targeting mercury pollution and ground-level ozone. In contrast, reelection would give Obama a chance to consolidate and entrench these regulatory approaches, but he could also face new legal challenges.

The two candidates also differ on how to protect habitat on federal land. Obama has taken a two-pronged approach: Honor existing moratoria on oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the coasts of California and Florida and oppose drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but move cautiously to allow exploratory wells in Arctic seas off Alaska. He also has stiffened regulatory requirements for companies wanting to drill, mine, or log on public lands.

Romney, in contrast, has said he would push to open for drilling ANWR and other coastal areas, as well as offering greater incentives to quickly develop areas that are already open to leasing. He has criticized Obama for crippling efforts to exploit public holdings and said he would give states a greater say in how to use federal lands within their boundaries.

The next administration will also need to decide how much political capital to invest on reaching an international deal to address climate change. Obama has said the U.S. will stay involved in desultory efforts to persuade other major greenhouse gas emitters—most notably China—to act in concert to curb their emissions. China has shown little appetite for the subject recently, however, and Congress fiercely opposes any deal that it believes puts the United States at an economic disadvantage. The Romney campaign, meanwhile, has said that it is skeptical of any global discussions, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the causes and impacts of climate change.

Although few are betting on any global agreement any time soon to curb emissions, the issue isn't going away. In September 2013, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will start releasing its next big report on the science, impacts, and potential mitigation of climate change. The new data are expected to rekindle debate on the topic.

Striking the right balance between protecting the environment and fostering economic development lies at the heart of another issue facing the next president, namely, how best to rewrite the Toxic Substances Control Act. It's the nation's flagship law regulating the use of new and existing chemicals. One especially thorny issue is how to regulate the minuscule products of nanotechnology without hobbling commercialization of that nascent field.



For better or worse, teachers have captured the lion's share of the meager attention given to education during this year's presidential election. Their political activism infuriates Mitt Romney, who would like to ban teachers' unions from making campaign contributions. In addition, his support for vouchers—channeling federal funding for low-income and disabled students to parents rather than to local and state agencies—is designed in part to blunt the influence of teachers' unions in making policy. In contrast, President Barack Obama has relied on these unions to help get out the vote, and he frequently mentions that funds from his massive 2009 federal stimulus package have kept hundreds of thousands of classroom teachers on the payroll.

But what do the two candidates think about the job that those teachers are paid to do? Both men have said that teachers are the essential ingredient in a good school. And although it may be easy to dismiss their comments as an applause line, their position also squares with a growing body of research on the powerful influence of good teachers on student learning.

Those findings could play a role in several pieces of legislation coming up for review as soon as next year. Two key reauthorizations are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which former President George W. Bush branded “No Child Left Behind,” and the Higher Education Act, which governs student lending and teacher training. Also on the table are special education and technical education programs, as well as the Department of Education's research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. Scientists hope that research on teacher quality will get a boost regardless of which man is elected.

The federal government provides less than 10% of all funding for elementary and secondary education in the United States, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education receives a tiny fraction of that federal investment. Even so, Obama has probably spent more time talking about STEM education than any president in recent memory. His stump speech invariably includes his promise to train 100,000 more science and math teachers over the next decade as part of a broader effort to build a more technology-savvy workforce. Obama has also run on his record of fostering state-based educational innovations through a $4 billion Race to the Top competition for schools, as well as a public-private partnership, called Educate to Innovate, created to attract more students, in particular women and minorities, into STEM fields.

Romney hasn't ignored the subject, although he has much less to say about science and math education. He believes that Washington has no business financing implementation of the so-called Common Core, a voluntary effort by 45 states and the District of Columbia to adopt a similar curriculum in math and language arts, and a companion common assessment of student performance. That stance presumably would also apply to the pending next-generation science standards that have yet to be embraced by the states. At the same time, however, he backs efforts by states to hold teachers accountable for how much students learn, including losing their jobs if test scores stagnate.

The importance of science education to the Obama administration is no coincidence. Physics Nobelist Carl Wieman was the driving force for STEM education policies during most of Obama's first term before leaving the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in June for treatment of a serious medical condition. Wieman has spent more than a decade conducting research on two related issues: how to improve undergraduate science courses, and the training of future STEM teachers. He believes that both areas would benefit from an approach he calls “deliberate practice,” that is, treating the brain as a muscle that acquires skills through extended and strenuous learning activities. Two recent reports, one by a presidential advisory body on improving STEM education and another by the U.S. National Academies on discipline-based science education, strike similar themes on what needs to be done.

In short, a second Obama administration will likely continue its push to beef up federal STEM education efforts. Romney, on the other hand, would probably be content to see local authorities take the initiative.


Space Science

The budgets for space science and space exploration at NASA may be comparable in size, but that's where their similarity ends. Human flight and the hardware needed to make it happen get most of the attention from Congress and the public, thanks in part to the clout of the aerospace industry and the popular appeal of astronauts. But scientific missions, such as Hubble and the Mars Curiosity rover, have racked up the biggest achievements in recent years.

The next president will be challenged to find a way to keep both sectors healthy, and it promises to be a tall order for either man. Critics of President Barack Obama say he lacks a comprehensive vision for human exploration and that NASA's pipeline of robotic missions is running dry. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has settled for criticizing his opponent's record without offering any substantial plan of his own.

There is no shortage of scientific decisions facing the next administration. The agency's plans for exploring Mars in the next decade are only beginning to take shape, following the Obama administration's recent decision to cancel NASA's participation in the European-led ExoMars mission. NASA is under pressure to deliver the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope by 2018, its new launch date, and the next president will have to ensure that the mission does not suffer any further cost increases.

The next administration will also have to wrestle with Congress over the way forward in promoting commercial spaceflight after Obama cancelled the Constellation program, whose goal was to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020. That approach was replaced with a plan to commercialize human spaceflight, develop new technologies, and send humans to a nearby asteroid by 2025. The administration has had to overcome considerable resistance from Congress over the past 3 years to begin implementing Obama's vision.

If Republican nominee Romney has a position on these and other issues facing NASA, he's keeping it a secret. All he has said on the subject so far is that he doesn't like the direction in which NASA is headed. In a space policy white paper released by the Romney campaign last month, he attacked Obama for failing to “deliver a coherent policy for human space exploration and space security,” which he said was eroding the nation's leadership in space. “The President's disjointed collection of scientific projects lack guiding principles, plausible objectives, or a roadmap for long-run success,” Romney wrote in the white paper.

What would Romney do differently? His paper offers some rather broad hints. One would ensure that NASA has “practical and sustainable missions” that balance “pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.” A second would improve the relationship between NASA and its international partners. A third calls for a clear road map for developing the commercial space industry. At the same time, some of his proposals sound like what NASA is already doing, such as developing “new generations of spacecraft for government missions” while transitioning out of “routine space operations in low Earth orbit as private sector capabilities mature.”

If Obama wins a second term, he can expect to continue his tussle with Congress to secure funding for the programs NASA has embarked on at a time when the space agency's budget is only likely to flatten or decline. He's already compromised (supporters would say he's shown flexibility) by embracing two elements of the abandoned Constellation program—a stripped-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that is to serve as a lifeboat for the International Space Station and a heavy-lift rocket.

The fighting over the big redirection that Obama ordered may have finally subsided, but more recent changes are continuing to be met with resistance. Obama's decision to cancel NASA's participation in ExoMars has ignited protests from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. NASA officials have responded by outlining a new Mars exploration program that would begin with an orbiter mission in 2018 followed by a sample return effort and culminating in a human mission to the Red Planet in the mid-2030s. But filling in the details of that plan will be just one of many challenges that await the next president.



Biodefense has been well below the radar in the election campaign, but the next administration will have to make an early decision on how much further to go in regulating basic research involving potentially risky pathogens. In March, the Obama administration expanded regulatory requirements for federally funded scientists working with 15 particularly dangerous agents after a global controversy over whether scientists should publish two studies showing how they made the H5N1 avian influenza virus potentially more dangerous to humans (Science, 6 April, p. 21).

The papers were ultimately published, but the episode is still reverberating through the bureaucracy. Government officials are working on plans that would ask universities to do more to help reduce the risks to society from biomedical research that might be used for good or evil. But any new system could take several years to implement, and academics are likely to push back against any rules that they see as adding to their workloads without truly reducing risks. The next administration will also have to help resolve the question of how—and when—to end a voluntary research moratorium that has stalled certain kinds of influenza studies.

The next president will also need to review a proposed $3.1 billion expansion of the controversial BioWatch early warning system designed to detect a bioweapons attack. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has so far spent about $1 billion to deploy BioWatch systems in 30 U.S. cities. But government auditors and independent analysts say the current technology—which involves air filters that are hand-checked daily for the presence of pathogens—is faulty and unreliable. BioWatch planners have proposed an upgrade, known as Generation 3, which would automate much of the system. But many members of Congress are skeptical of the cost and have called for a review before moving ahead. DHS officials have asked an outside group to take a look and report back sometime next year.



On the campaign trail, president Barack Obama and Mitt Romney differ sharply on what to do about illegal immigration, including the 12 million undocumented persons living in the United States.

But the candidates are not far apart on the issue of legal immigration, which gets much less attention. And they hold nearly identical positions on how to make it easier to retain the most talented foreign students after they graduate with advanced science and engineering degrees from U.S. universities. Their solution, often shortened to the sound bite “Staple a green card to their diplomas,” is also a key objective for the U.S. high-tech community.

But the politics of immigration make achieving that goal difficult. Last month, for instance, the House of Representatives defeated a Republican-backed bill that included a “stapling-lite” provision because many Democrats objected to how it would be implemented. Conventional wisdom says that such changes will have to be part of comprehensive immigration reform, which so far has eluded Congress.

But next year could be different. “I can deliver, Governor, a whole bunch of Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform done,” Obama promised during last week's debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Not to be outdone, Romney replied: “I'll get it done, first year.” If the next president keeps his word, foreign-born scientists could find themselves with a much easier path toward permanent residency.


Biomedical Research

Although president Barack Obama's policy on stem cell research and his choices to lead the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute have pleased the biomedical research community, his habit of singling out specific diseases for special attention in budget requests has ruffled some scientists' feathers.

Most scientists would prefer that a president rely on NIH's peer-review system to award money based on the strongest proposals. Mitt Romney, who has otherwise said little about biomedical research, has promised to do exactly that.

Obama administration officials have said that their emphasis on specific diseases is a response to public health needs and scientific opportunities. And the practice may be irresistible for politicians responding to key constituencies and their own health histories.


Obama, whose mother died of ovarian cancer, favored cancer research over the rest of NIH's portfolio in his 2010 and 2011 budget requests. His 2010 request also proposed doubling cancer research over 8 years. Congress, however, ignored those requests.

The Obama administration has enjoyed greater success in its bid to boost autism research, which grew by 28% over those 2 years. Research on Alzheimer's has also been favored in the past year. “We can't wait to act; reducing the burden of Alzheimer's disease on patients and their families is an urgent national priority,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in February about the new Alzheimer's money.

The Romney campaign is not immune to such pleas, and Ann Romney, Mitt's wife, is a breast cancer survivor. The Republican platform says the party supports biomedical research, “especially … neuroscience research” on diseases such as autism, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. It also backs more research on cancer and other diseases among “formerly neglected groups.”

At the same time, Romney's campaign Web site doesn't mention research on specific diseases. And he toed the biomedical community's line while campaigning in Iowa during the Republican primary. “Where I will spend money … will be determined not by the people who are the politicians but by the scientists and by people who measure where they think the impact will be the greatest,” Romney told a boy with autism at a town hall meeting. “So I can tell you that I will do it in a fair and appropriate, nonpolitical way.”

One of President Obama's most significant science policy changes was his 2009 executive order lifting limits on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. Romney hasn't cleary indicated whether he would maintain or reverse that policy.



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