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Sounding off.
David Baltimore speaks at the AAAS meeting on Thursday night.

Tell Us What You Really Think, Professor Baltimore

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

BOSTON--After expounding on the science of AIDS and the prospects for international scientific development, outgoing AAAS President David Baltimore wrapped up his opening address here Friday night with a strident election-year message: America needs a political change, and President George W. Bush has been bad for science and bad for the world.

"I've held my breath awaiting new leaders in Washington ... who I consider true Americans," said Baltimore, who spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (ScienceNOW's publisher). The lines elicited neither applause nor boos from the crowd of about 1200. He called for a science debate among presidential candidates. "The United States allowed itself to become mesmerized by the terrorist threat," he said. Baltimore marveled at "how much growth there is in Europe while the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq," blasted Congress and the White House for passing "a budget that does not meet the needs" of American science, and called on Americans to "hold our head low in penance for the horrors inflicted by our country in Abu Ghraib."

In the cocktail hour that followed, an informal and certainly unscientific straw poll yielded few scientists who disagreed. Physicist Burt Kendall of Qualcomm in San Diego, California, called Baltimore's remarks "a most reasonable discussion" and criticized what he called the Bush Administration's poor funding of science and an "antiscience attitude of the Administration." European Commission official Michel Claessens called Baltimore's political comments "courageous."

Hearing politics discussed so explicitly at a science meeting "is not something I'm accustomed to," said statistician Keith Crank of Arlington, Virginia. But did he find Baltimore's remarks unseemly? "No, I didn't. ... I do appreciate to have science as an agenda of the political process."

Not everyone approved. "I don't think that science should get involved with politics like we heard today," said physicist and AAAS fellow George Gamota, formerly a military science manager at the Pentagon. He said that although he had opposed going to war with Iraq, Baltimore's comments oversimplified the risks of leaving Iraq now. And he called the flat budgets for health sciences while politicians increased physical sciences "a rebalancing."

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