Just before Christmas, President Barack Obama celebrated a string of last-minute legislative accomplishments on tax cuts, gays in the military, the nuclear arms pact, the 9/11 responder bill, and food safety. But 2 weeks after saying that competition on innovation from overseas made this “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” the White House barely mentioned that key science legislation, the America COMPETES Act, which passed Congress last week amidst the flurry of lame-duck activity.
COMPETES authorizes scientific education efforts, manufacturing research, and, crucially, spending for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy (including its ARPA-E high risk research program), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The nonprofit Science Coalition called the bill’s passage “vital” and Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, called it “a major milestone” in one of two blog entries from White House aides on the bill. But with the spotlight on the president after the productive week, Obama made no mention of the bill in prepared statements, on the White House home page, or in a press conference.
“He should have mentioned it,” Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society said of Obama’s silence on COMPETES. “I would have been happy if I had heard more from him on that,” said National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest, who called the bill’s passage “a major deal.”
Vest also said paltry press coverage of the bill’s passage was “very disappointing,” as COMPETES was left out of thousands of stories on the last-minute legislative successes. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and even prominent science bloggers including Chris Mooney and Phil Plait failed to mention the bill’s passing.
What worries Lubell is that the low profile of science in the average American’s mind led the White House to emphasize the other accomplishments. “I hate to say this, but on the scale of things the public worries about, science is not one of the highest priorities for the average person. If you’re a politician, and especially if you’re president, you’re going to highlight other priorities.”
Incoming House of Representatives science committee chair Ralph Hall (R-TX) complained last week about the cost of the programs that the bill authorizes, foreshadowing fights with fiscal conservatives on the federal science budget. Lubell worries that the low profile of science is “going to be a huge problem for us going forward. The real fight over science is going to be in appropriations, and that’s going to be very, very rough.”
Holdren’s office declined to comment—though with many staff members on vacation this week it’s a tough time to get approval for statements. A bill-signing ceremony is expected for the legislation soon, so perhaps then COMPETES will get the attention advocates think it deserves.