Obama promises to ‘restore science to its rightful place’

President Obama has made the headlines with his speech to the National Academy of Sciences. First of all, he is apparently unusual among Presidents for attending the NAS annual meeting, but he also made a powerful speech promising to put science and research at the heart of the recovery of the US, with substantial increases in investment.The full text of his speech can be found on the New York Times Dot Earth blog which will be running a commentary space on the speech.

It is instructive to compare Obama's proposals with the policy developments we are facing in South Africa. The IPR Act of 2008 is based in the USA Bayh-Dole Act  of 1980. Not to labour the point too crudely, that is 29 years ago. We are forgetting the fundamental injunction that policy formulation needs to look forward, not backwards if it really to advance the country. The philosophy behind Bayh-Dole was informed by a Reagon-style economic vision that imploded in 2008 and one that the Obama adminstration is aiming at undoing. That outdated view says that the economy is all and that if universities act like businesses and commercialise their research, using patenting and revenue-seeking, then this will bring benefit to the country through economic growth and trickle-down. In my next few blogs I will be exploring the debate on how this has really worked (or rather, not worked) and what alternatives are now being proposed in other countries for effective innovation.

But for now, let us celebrate Obama's speech and see what vision it embodies, rather than the dysfunctional 'managemented' view we currently live with. He talks of the crisis: 'a medical system that holds the promise of unlocking new cures and
treatments — attached to a health care system that holds the potential
for bankruptcy to families and businesses; a system of energy that
powers our economy, but simultaneously endangers our planet; threats to
our security that seek to exploit the very interconnectedness and
openness so essential to our prosperity; and challenges in a global
marketplace which links the derivative trader on Wall Street.

The main focus is on medicine and energy for a sustainable environment, both with a strong human perspective.

Obama's vision is of an interdisciplinary, international, collaborative and open scientific system. For a start, the policy system is being opened up: 

As part of this effort, we’ve already launched a web site that allows
individuals to not only make recommendations to achieve this goal, but
to collaborate on those recommendations. It’s a small step, but one
that’s creating a more transparent, participatory and democratic

Then science itself is perceived as a collaborative open system: 

 In biomedicine… we
can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical
sciences that’s underway today; undertaking public projects — in the
spirit of the Human Genome Project — to create data and capabilities
that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories; and
identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to
rapidly translating scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and
therapeutics that serve patients.

And of course, with someone like Harold Varmus leading his scientific team, one hopes that open access will be on the agenda of a new scientific system.

Science is seen as not only the ivory tower (although basic science is given a strong emphasis) but scientists are preceived as potential activists. Applied research is valued and Obama places a strong emphasis on the potential role of the young and of the role that scientists can play in taking their knowledge into the schools and the community to help enthuse and inspire a new generation. 

Ultimately, in typical Obama vein, it is a moral vision that drives this iniitiave, although substantial funding is going to drive it: 

Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the
more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we
must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our
principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help
put those values — these moral sentiments, that faith — can put those
things to work — to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good
stewards of this Earth.

We need to ask whether our policies are in line with this renewed vision from the country that drives sceintific research in the world and if we are ready to collaborate with Obama's USA.