03/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Restoring Science To Its Rightful Place

In the days after Barack Obama's inaugural address, television pundits continued to ask what line or lines would be remembered generations from now.

The 18-minute address is full of powerful phrases, but let me suggest one that particularly stood out: "We'll restore science to its rightful place."

It is not common for public officials to talk about science. Yet, the past eight years starkly demonstrated the consequences of politicians who not only disregard science and scientists, but -- worse -- intimidate them and censor facts and restrict research. The repeated pattern in the Bush administration was to challenge, manipulate, and at times silence the work and judgment of professional scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists captured this pattern in a study that found that 889 of nearly 1,600 staff scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency reported that they experienced political interference in their work over the last five years. Even before the Bush presidency, science was viewed with reserve or lack of interest -- sometimes approvingly, sometimes disapprovingly -- but almost never with an embrace of support and appreciation.

Science should be valued and play a vital role in our national discourse, as it affects nearly every issue facing our country -- sometimes obvious, as in energy sources or treatments for diseases, and sometimes not so obvious, as in workplace protections or voting procedures.

As a scientist (and member of the informal and good humored "Congressional Physics Caucus" with my colleagues Vern Ehlers and Bill Foster), I am excited about the President's first steps to restore science to its rightful place.

He could not have made a better selection than John Holdren, a Harvard physicist, to serve as his White House Science Advisor. Mr. Holdren has a global view of science that will serve the President well. As he said following his nomination: "None of the great interlinked challenges of our time -- the economy, energy, environment, health, security, and the particular vulnerabilities of the poor to shortfalls in all of these -- can be solved without insights and advances from the physical sciences, the life sciences, and engineering. Obama understands this with perfect clarity."

I also have been encouraged by the Obama administration's support for investing in innovation as part of an economic recovery strategy. In December, I hosted a roundtable discussion at Princeton University, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressional leaders, and national leaders in the science and technology community -- including Mr. Holdren -- to highlight the importance of innovation infrastructure to ensure long-term American competitiveness. The economic recovery bill the House of Representatives passed this week includes nearly $16 billion in new funding for science research and facilities. Passage of this investment would reaffirm that science research is a powerful, maybe the most powerful, economic engine, creating jobs in the short-term and building our economy in the long-term.

This week brought more good news, as President Obama directed the EPA to reevaluate a Bush administration ruling that denied 14 states, including California and New Jersey, from establishing auto emission standards higher than the national standard. If the EPA overturns this ruling it will allow New Jersey to enact the Low Emission Vehicle program that the state legislature passed in 2005. According to a report by the State of New Jersey, enacting this program would decrease estimated greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 from automobiles in New Jersey by 22 percent, about 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

The president also announced that he was directing the Department of Transportation to finalize new, national fuel efficiency standards in time for the 2011 model year. These announcements make it clear the administration is serious about energy sustainability.

There is a false impression in Washington that you need a PhD or science background to use scientific facts and research to make public policy decisions. This should not be the case. In the early days of his presidency -- beginning with his inaugural address pledging to "restore science to its rightful place" and his energy announcements in the East Room on Monday when he criticized "rigid ideology" for having overridden "sound science" -- President Obama has set an example that all public servants would be wise to replicate.