Obama’s Science Picks

Posted by Katherine | December 30, 2008 – 7:28 pm
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Before the holidays, Obama picked his science and science-related team. The nominees include Tom Vilsack for Agriculture, Steven Chu for Energy, Ken Salazar for Interior, Jane Lubchenco for NOAA, and Lisa Jackson for EPA. Also John Holdren, Harold Varmus, Eric Lander, and Carol Browner as advisors.

The lefty blogosphere seems to be more vocal than the right on the science choices and reflects the general liberal/progressive happiness with all but Salazar and Vilsack.

The Green Man at Irregular Times is hugely disappointed by Salazar and Obama.

This summer, Barack Obama joined Ken Salazar on the hypewagon to support offshore drilling. His appointment of Senator Salazar as Interior Secretary suggests that when it comes to management of our nation’s natural resources, we can expect the dominance of hype over rational planning and protection to continue.

It didn’t take Cathy McNeil long to become disillusioned with Obama, either. She’s a Colorado rancher who raises grass-fed beef, and she feels Vilsack is a “complete shill for the multinational, megalithic, agribusiness industry.”

Well, the honeymoon is over for my hope for change! With president elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture it’s back to business as usual. And I do mean business as usual (as in agribusiness)! […] I had hoped for so much better! President elect Obama has delivered a catstrohpic blow to the local food and sustainable agriculture movement.

Jen, a probutcool blogger for Farm Aid, is more moderately skeptical of Vilsack. She recognizes that he’s a biotech fan who has “protected the interests of factory farms” but concedes that he has done some good things for family farmers and the environment. She’s willing to cut him some slack.

While his actions as governor leave much to be desired in terms of demonstrating a commitment to the kind of sustainable, family farm agriculture we’re working toward, in recent interviews Vilsack’s words have demonstrated that it is still possible for agricultural policy change at the cabinet level. Perhaps as a representative of US agriculture and not simply the agriculture of one state, Vilsack’s policies will be more encompassing of all of us — farmers and eaters alike.

Gene Bauer, who aims to change “hearts and minds about animals and food,” feels it’s worth hoping Vilsack will do right by sustainable food — and that citizens have a responsibility to remain engaged.

Obama has criticized government subsidies to “corporate megafarms.” Hopefully, Vilsack will share Obama’s concerns about unfair support for wealthy agribusinesses in U.S. farm policy. If Vilsack steps up to the plate and challenges the status quo in Washington, D.C., he has the potential to be one of the best Agriculture Secretaries ever. But he’ll need to serve a wider constituency than those traditionally supported by USDA, and he’ll face serious obstacles, ranging from institutional inertia to agribusiness’s entrenched influence. It will be absolutely critical for all of us to be engaged – to fight factory farming and support efforts to enact policies that are consistent with humane values, and that help bring about a just, sustainable, healthy food system.

Like Gene Bauer, pcrossfield, a group blogger at Civil Eats, is discouraged by Vilsack but not giving up on activism.

I encourage those of you who, like me, are fighting for a better food system not to be discouraged. It is our job to keep pushing and protesting until Washington understands how serious the issues surrounding our methods of food production in this country are. I take inspiration from the workers at the Chicago factory that was shut down earlier this month, and by Obama’s encouragement of their protest. We must insist that we be heard, and continue to ride the wave of hope, because we know that we have an incoming President who is at last receptive.

Joseph Romm (excerpted previously here) is a probutcool climate-change blogger in DC. Under Bill Clinton, he was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency. Romm has met Vilsack several times and feels he’s “nothing to lose sleep over.”

[H]e certainly understands that corn ethanol is not the future of biofuels. He also believes in strong action on greenhouse gas emissions.

He is a biotech guy […] And he isn’t the greenest Ag guy in the country […] But he is more green than not […]

Moving on to some of the nominees other than Salazar and Vilsack: Jesse Jenkins is an energy and climate activist in Berkeley. He’s bullish on Steven Chu for Energy but takes a wait-and-see attitude about his ultimate effectiveness.

Coming, as he does, from within the National Labs system itself, it will be interesting to see if Chu will advocate the sweeping reforms to America’s energy technology innovation system we need. It’s also unclear if Chu’s academic acumen will translate well to a more political stage. But what does seem to be clear is that in Dr. Chu, Obama has found an able technologist with a keen grasp on both the technical and political challenges of creating a new global energy economy.

Vonny, an Illinois educator and Lord of the Rings fan, gives the selection of Holdren, Lubchenco, Varmus, and Lander a “standing ovation.”

[T]his is an impressive team. It also tells us something that will be an ENORMOUS difference with the respect and role science plays at the top of government policy: there actually will be respect for science and a respect for open inquiry, and a goal of gathering facts, data and evidence for policy decisions. […] I suspect the world is breathing a collective sigh of relief as well with these appointments and the use of science Obama has in mind.

The blogger at Delightfully Unfocused Musings — a biomedical grad student who loves to travel — agrees. S/he “could not be happier” about Chu and Holdren.

I have every confidence that science will be restored to its pedestal over the next four years. Obama gets it.

For an entertaining tangent: click here for a probutcool video encouraging Obama to plant a global-warming-reducing vegetable garden at the White House. (Hat tip to Jones Franzel.)


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