Can 61 Nobel laureates help get Barack Obama elected? On Sept 25, these science luminaries released a letter saying that Obama is the best hope for “a visionary leader who can ensure the future of our traditional strengths in science and technology and who can harness those strengths to address many of our greatest problems: energy, disease, climate change, security, and economic competitiveness.” Adds laureate Dr. Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former director of the National Institutes of Health: “There is very strong support for Obama among scientists. He shows a clear understanding of the importance of investing in science and technology.”
That would be a sharp break from the Bush Administration, which demoted the traditional presidential science adviser, and is widely viewed as having ignored scientific evidence in everything from climate change to stem cell research. Under Bush, “U.S. science policy has been disastrous,” says MIT molecular biologist and Nobel laureate H. Robert Horvitz.
In contrast, according to Obama’s plan for “investing in America’s future,” the Democratic candidate would bring science back into policy decisions, double basic research spending over the next 10 years, help businesses with a permanent R&D tax credit and capital gains tax reductions, and push for alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels.
To scientists, Obama’s commitments to science put him considerably ahead of Republican nominee John McCain. McCain has supported action on climate, but he’s also talking about freezing spending for most domestic programs for at least a year, which, researchers say, would hurt science and innovation. “There are many ways in which John McCain does show some recognition of the disastrous effects of the Bush Administration, but we have not seen the same track record, and the direct addressing of science issues, what we’ve seen from the Obama campaign,” says Varmus, who heads a group of scientists advising Obama.
But Obama’s ambitious plans for science—and the support of prominent scientists—raise two big questions. Given the huge budget deficits and sagging economy, would Obama be able to deliver on his promises? And since some voters may perceive scientists as yet another interest group with its hand out, will the support of Nobel laureates help or hurt at the polls in November?