Return to an age of reason

Kevin Fong welcomes Obama's promise to restore the importance of science

February 12, 2009

I am having dinner with a table of Texan academics in Russell Square on the night of the US presidential elections. The full spectrum of political opinion is represented; the Apostles of McCain, the Barack Believers, the Hillary Haters. The group is unified only by its opinion that Sarah Palin represented a Republican zig when a zag was required.

I was eating pizza when the Berlin Wall started to come down; sitting in halls of residence listening to late-night radio when the opening shots of the first Gulf War were fired; and revising for medical finals when the Spice Girls became the first band in history to chalk up six consecutive number-one singles. And so it is that history is often made while we are about our business doing something else.

Seven weeks later, as Barack Obama is inaugurated, I make a conscious effort to stop and pay attention. I scramble upstairs, taking my three-year-old son with me. I sit him down beside me; I say sit, I mean wrestle.

I put my arm around him. "This," I tell him, finger jabbing in the direction of the TV, "is history in the making. Things like this don't happen very often." He turns his head to meet my gaze; perhaps some small part of him senses the magnitude of the moment. He opens his mouth to speak: "Can I watch Nina and the Neurons now?" he says.

The inauguration moves on, an all-star quartet performs a piece specially composed by John Williams to commemorate the momentous occasion. (Is it me or does it sound quite a lot like the theme from Jaws crossed with the closing titles from Star Wars?) And then, shortly after the famously fluffed Oath of Office, Obama delivers his much-awaited inaugural address.

I am desperately trying to relieve my son of the remote control and thereby frustrate his attempts to retune the TV to CBeebies when I think I hear the President of United States utter the words "we will restore science to its rightful place". I have to watch it again a few times on YouTube to make sure I heard it right. But it is for real; and he goes further still: "We will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

I'm not 100 per cent sure what he means by any of this but it sounds extremely promising. He already appears to have a reputation, unfashionable among politicians, for consulting experts and then actually deferring to that expertise. Within the US, stem-cell research, environment policy - hell, science in general - may enjoy a renaissance of sorts under this Administration.

It is not that the Republicans didn't pump any money into science. On the contrary, spending on scientific research increased throughout the George W. Bush era, with health-science funding enjoying a very healthy boost in his first term. But it is not spending that marks Obama out, it is his apparently rational disposition to the science community.

In recent weeks, leading US scientists have found themselves sitting around tables on Capitol Hill, delighted and bewildered in equal measure that they have, for perhaps the first time, what appears to be a voice that Washington might heed.

All of this is a happy departure from the approach of Obama's predecessor, who is infamous for saying, "Well, the jury is still out on evolution, you know" - a Bushism that kind of epitomised his Administration's attitude to science and scientific evidence.

Obama has hit the ground running, injecting more money into the National Institutes of Health, relaxing laws that previously forbade public funding of human embryonic stem-cell research and recruiting Nobel laureate Steven Chu to revamp the US's energy policy.

It is heartening to know that the field of science has been marked out for prominence by this incoming president. Faced with impending global financial Armageddon it must be tempting for politicians to sideline the needs of the science community in favour of agendas likely to provide more instant political gratification. But his early manoeuvres, coupled with his statements on the value of education, suggest that for Obama this is not the case.

In my wildest dreams I imagine that perhaps we are witnessing something truly historic here: the dawn of a return to more rational values, to a society and political administration with less disposable attitudes. In my most feral fantasies I imagine that the UK might, for once, follow an American trend that actually might do it some good.

It is of course too early to tell. There are websites that allow you to track every one of Obama's manifesto pledges. So far there are very few ticks in boxes. But the presidency is less than 100 days old. The official theme of Obama's inauguration was "renewing America's promise". As with all politicians, Obama will be judged on his ability to keep his.

As I try to witness this particular slice of history unfold, my son has decided to run the words "Nina-and-the-Neurons" together and repeat them at dizzying rate and volume.

I recall momentarily that, when I was not much older than he is now, my parents sat me down to watch an American spacecraft docking with a Russian capsule - an event that drove my interest in science from that moment onward and led me to my current career.

I look at the TV, at the flags, the strutting politicians, the pomp and the ceremony. I look at my son who has gone quiet and is beginning to take an interest in the inaugural proceedings. I go cold and before you can say "where's the remote?" I decide switching over to CBeebies might actually be a good idea after all.

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