Obama Set to Change Science and Tech

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States this week, he promised that his administration would “restore science to its rightful place.” Whether reality will fit the rhetoric remains to be seen, and there are reasons to be both optimistic and a little wary.

In his inaugural speech, the president devoted a decent 130 out of 2,402 words to technology issues such as broadband, science research, health IT, and clean energy. These highlights generally track with what is posted on Whitehouse.gov as part of his technology agenda. So how might things change in each of these areas?

Right Vehicle for Health IT?
When it comes to broadband, Obama is said to be ready to name Julius Genachowski as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Genachowski founded LaunchBox Digital, a Washington, D.C.-based tech startup accelerator program, and even conservative politicos seem happy with the pick. A new FCC chair with startup exposure and a decent reputation on the regulatory front bodes well for future debates over broadband issues such as Net neutrality and broadband deployment.

When it comes to health IT, making progress will be much tougher, since the nation’s healthcare system is far from wired. House Democratic leaders recently proposed US$20 billion in spending for health information technology, a move in line with Obama’s thinking. Of course, whether government is the right vehicle to get health IT up and running is another question, especially when one recalls problems with the government’s vast e-rate program. Government bureaucrats approved fraudulent applications for more than $48 million in the San Francisco Unified School District alone.

Continuing on the increased spending theme, Obama pledged “to invest $150 billion over 10 years, $15 billion dollars a year, on an ‘Apollo Project’ for energy independence.” With his appointment of Steven Chu as energy secretary, it is clear that renewable energy is going to be a major focus of both spending and regulation. Already, Chu has said that he will push to require power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities to buy and sell pollution permits. This will be a change from current policy, putting more control in the government’s hands.

Other Voices
When it comes to science research, stem cells are on the top of most people’s minds, although this area clearly includes much more. As recently as last Friday, Obama said he wanted legislation from Congress to permit federal funding on embryonic stem cell research, although he could get research moving by issuing an executive order or presidential memorandum. On the same day Obama made his inaugural address, the Center for American Progress, a think tank run by Obama’s transition team co-chairman John Podesta, released a report urging reform on the stem cell front. Overturning the Bush administration’s ban on government funding appears to be a top priority, sure to please researchers around the country.

It’s worth recalling that most recent presidents have been excited about the promise of technology. Early in his first term, George W. Bush and his aides showcased their commitment to tech at a relaunch of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. Of course, George Bush went on to give up his own e-mail account for security purposes, whereas Barack Obama is fighting to maintain the ability to use his BlackBerry. That is the first sign of tech change.

In a recent CNN interview, Obama said, “I want to be able to have voices, other than the people who are immediately working for me, be able to reach out and … send me a message about what’s happening in America.”

While the details of the nation’s new technology and science policy remain foggy, government spending and regulation in many areas will certainly increase. Researchers and others will welcome infusions of new taxpayer money, but the strings that go along with it will be political, and politics and technology rarely mix well.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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