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Obama science legacy draws media attention

25 October 2016
One recurring theme is the president’s optimistic belief that humans “can science the heck out of just about any problem.”

“We will restore science to its rightful place,” declared President Obama in his 2009 inauguration speech. Now—as part of promoting what the Washington Post calls an overall “favorable narrative of his presidency,” seeking “maximum media hagiography”—he’s asserting that he has indeed elevated science. His science legacy is being examined in the media, especially at Nature, skeptically, and at Wired, supportively.

President Obama gives a speech about precision medicine at the White House in January 2015. Credit: White House photo by Pete SouzaPresident Obama gives a speech about precision medicine at the White House in January 2015.
Credit: White House photo by Pete Souza

At Wired, the article “Obama wants to leave the Oval Office to a pro-science POTUS” contains a video clip that begins with the president making another declaration, one that NPR used to open its 14 October edition of Science Friday: “I confess, I’m a science geek. I’m a nerd. And I don’t make any apologies for it.... It’s cool stuff. It is that thing that sets us apart—that ability to imagine, and then hypothesize, and then test, and figure stuff out, and tinker, and make things ... and make ’em better, and then break ’em down and rework ’em.”

A photograph symbolizes not only Obama’s enthusiastic outlook on science, but his lifelong fascination with what he believes science means. It shows him in the Oval Office giving the Vulcan salute from Star Trek alongside actor Nichelle Nichols from that 1960s-era TV series, a touchstone in Obama’s science experience. Obama once called the salute “the universal sign for ‘Live long and prosper,’” a recurring greeting on the show, and praised Star Trek for its “optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

That vision underlies Obama’s widely discussed recent listing of his favorite science fiction TV shows and films—a list that, according to the Guardian, “highlights a relentless optimism and fascination with other worlds.” Beginning with Star Trek (1966–69), and with a special nod to the Carl Sagan TV documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980), the president lists 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977), Blade Runner (1982), and The Matrix (1999). From the present century, he adds The Martian (2015).

At the Los Angeles Times, where show biz is a local industry, a review of Obama’s sci-fi picks declared that the president “has established his geek credentials.” The Denver Post ran a wire-service article that exclaimed, “The Harvard-trained lawyer has never been shy about his fascination with all things scientific and high-tech. Over the years he’s fired off a high-speed marshmallow air cannon at a White House science fair and rubbernecked at robots built by teenagers.” In the UK, a Daily Mail headline exclaimed “Commander in geek!”

In the Scientific American online posting “Make America scientific again,” contributor Natalie Jacewicz, who holds a Harvard evolutionary biology degree, reported general expressions of approval of Obama’s science legacy from Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health. Varmus added a few words about federal science: “President Obama also did a good job in a tricky area where the executive branch can have a lot of influence: the science agencies. He has authority over his appointees at these agencies, but letting the scientists run those agencies and play a pivotal role in how money is spent is very important. And I think Obama did a very good job letting scientists follow their instincts.”

But one of Nature’s four August articles on the Obama science legacy credited him with “uneven progress on scientific integrity,” with agencies adopting but not always following stronger policies. “Political considerations have sometimes trumped scientific ones during Obama’s tenure,” charged Nature, for example at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another of those articles praised Obama’s overturning of restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research and his “major initiatives to map the brain, develop personalized medical treatments and cure cancer,” but alleged and lamented a congressional unwillingness to provide adequate funding.

Much of the coverage has engaged the 13 October White House Frontiers Conference, held in Pittsburgh with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. A presidential press release announced it grandly: “President Obama Hosts Frontiers Conference, Focusing on the Potential of Science, Technology, and Innovation to Drive Prosperity and Address Challenges in Personal, Local, National, Global, and Interplanetary Frontiers for the Next 50 Years and Beyond.” The release glorified the president’s “leadership in science, technology, and innovation” and cited participation by more than 700 “researchers, business leaders, technologists, philanthropists, local innovators, and students who are the change-makers of tomorrow” from “across academia, industry, government, and civil society.”

Almost at the same time, articles appeared online from Wired’s November issue, created with apparently substantial participation by a notable guest editor: Barack Obama. Wired explained the framing:

Yesterday in Pittsburgh, during the White House Frontiers Conference, Barack Obama went on a tour of the most cutting-edge US technologies. With just a few months left in office, Obama is seeking to cement his legacy as a whole-hearted supporter of science—something that has been a clear differentiator between camps in this crazy election year. Science and technology, Obama seemingly hopes to underline, leads [sic] to progress—and, yes, American success.

Obama’s own essay in the special issue—headlined “Now is the greatest time to be alive”—begins this way:

When Wired asked me to guest-edit the November issue, I didn’t hesitate. I know it’s the height of election season, and I happen to have a day job that keeps me pretty busy. But given the chance to immerse myself in the possibility of interplanetary travel or join a deep-dive conversation on artificial intelligence, I’m going to say yes. I love this stuff. Always have. It’s why my favorite movie of last year was The Martian. Of course, I’m predisposed to love any movie where Americans defy the odds and inspire the world. But what really grabbed me about the film is that it shows how humans—through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other—can science the heck out of just about any problem.

I’m a guy who grew up watching Star Trek—and I’d be lying if I said that show didn’t have at least some small influence on my worldview. What I loved about it was its optimism, the fundamental belief at its core that the people on this planet, for all our varied backgrounds and outward differ­ences, could come together to build a better tomorrow.

I still believe that. I believe we can work together to do big things that raise the fortunes of people here at home and all over the world. And even if we’ve got some work left to do on faster-than-light travel, I still believe science and technology is the warp drive that accelerates that kind of change for everybody.

The president also advised, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated but the winner of the science fair.” After plugging science funding, his essay closed by linking his science legacy to hopes for the future: “Above all, we must embrace that quintes­sentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the bound­aries of what’s possible. If we do, I’m hopeful that tomorrow’s Americans will be able to look back at what we did—the diseases we conquered, the social problems we solved, the planet we protected for them—and when they see all that, they’ll plainly see that theirs is the best time to be alive.” He tied it all together with a thought that ended with phrasing borrowed from Star Trek: “And then they’ll take a page from our book and write the next great chapter in our American story, emboldened to keep going where no one has gone before.”

Wired editor Scott Dadich wrote at some length about the president’s involvement. He addressed the obvious journalistic sensitivities, stipulating that story selection was collaborative but that Wired staff had done the reporting and writing. He also recalled:

When one of the president’s advisers reached out to me about working with Wired, I pitched hard. Forget a Q&A. I wanted something more ambitious. That’s why I went to Washington to invite the president of the United States to guest-edit our November edition. This isn’t about politics. We aren’t trying to get anyone elected with this issue. We are instead celebrating a kindred spirit, someone who sees the potential of the future and isn’t afraid to head into it.

The president and his team had page after page of ideas, and we realized that many of them focused on confronting big challenges—stopping climate change, exploring Mars, using personalized medicine to cure disease. They were the kind of ambitious ideas that you can see energizing a relatively young, hopeful optimist who’s about to be out of a job. We talked about the next big hurdles humanity faces and how we will get past them. These are the things that interest us too. One word seemed to capture the mutual mood: frontiers.

A November Wired article reporting a technoscientific discussion quoted Obama’s view of the central importance of the climate-change challenge: “In terms of the broader questions around technology, I am a firm believer that if we get climate change right, if we’re able to tap the brakes and figure out how we avoid a 6-foot rise in the oceans, that humanity is gonna figure stuff out. I’m pretty optimistic. And we’ve done a lot of good work, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

The climate article in Nature’s August Obama-science-legacy collection praised the president for managing “to help broker a global climate accord and push through regulations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from cars, trucks and power plants.” It quoted David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who calls Obama’s climate legacy “terrific,” and Princeton climate scientist Robert Socolow, who sees the 2015 United Nations Paris agreement as a “major achievement for the world” that likely wouldn’t have happened without Obama.

Other media voices differ. CounterPunch, which calls itself “the fearless voice of the American left since 1993,” charged that “climate disaster, which candidate Obama warned was the biggest crisis facing America and the world, has been allowed to worsen almost unimpeded.” The article complained that the president has inexcusably “refused to make it his number one issue.”

According to Breitbart—the news organization of Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon—the president’s climate legacy will be defined by the results of a September federal appeals court hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants. The Washington Post agrees. It cited the hearing as bearing on “a key part of Obama’s climate legacy” because it “weighs the legality of the administration’s plan to force sharp cuts in power plants’ carbon emissions and push the nation toward cleaner energy sources.”

The White House’s campaign to cement the Obama science legacy has led to an Obama op-ed online at the CNN website, headlined with a phrase borrowed from the original Moon landing: “America will take the giant leap to Mars.” The commentary frames that envisioned giant leap in terms of continuing from early NASA’s precedents. But an article at the Atlantic echoes the skepticism in a space-and-NASA piece from Nature’s Obama-science-legacy series. Ars Technica echoes the skepticism too: “Obama has put NASA on an unsustainable pathway to Mars given NASA’s current resources and approach, and he is leaving the hard work of actually getting to Mars to his successors. In other words, right now, NASA is on a journey to Mars in name only.”

An 18 October Scientific American article says the president’s CNN op-ed suggests that he’s “thinking about his legacy in space” and declares that “whether Mars will truly be part of the president’s space legacy remains to be seen.” It reports the view of Marcia Smith, founder and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com, that Obama’s administration shines when it comes to commercial partnerships for space efforts. It also quotes space-policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, whose “biggest disappointment” with Obama is “lack of international leadership, not reaching out as the US president to the international community and saying ‘let’s do this together’—stepping out globally beyond low Earth orbit.”

The president himself voiced a different technopolitical disappointment in Wired: “Our general commitment as a society to basic research has diminished.” What about general engagement of science itself?

That Washington Post feature article reporting that “Obama has been presenting a favorable narrative of his presidency” appeared on the front page. It ranged widely across politics and culture. In the online version, its headline proclaimed, “Obama adopts a grand design to shape his legacy.”

The article mentioned the president’s guest editorship of the November Wired, but completely omitted the word science.

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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