Big Night for Obama Also Brings Changes for Science

Barack Obama made history yesterday by becoming the first African American to be elected president of the United States. The many scientists who had campaigned for the Democratic senator from Illinois reveled in last night's election returns. "We're just very thrilled," says physicist Bernice Durand, who had assembled a grassroots coalition of researchers supporting Obama (Science, 31 October, p. 658).

The election brought mostly good news for research as well. Here's a roundup of other developments that could have an impact on science:

Stem cells
Arguably the result most directly affecting researchers was in Michigan, where voters passed a measure that will free scientists from state restrictions on stem cell research. Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment that will go into effect next month, allows researchers to derive new human embryonic stem cell lines from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.

The measure supersedes a 1978 state law prohibiting the use of embryos in research. It was opposed on ethical grounds by right-to-life groups and the Catholic Church, which also raised the specter of science gone wild. Opponents even suggested that "we might try to clone cow-people," says stem cell researcher Sean Morrison of the University of Michigan (UM) Medical School in Ann Arbor. In fact, all cloning, including somatic cell nuclear transfer for research, is still banned.

Each side reportedly spent more than $5 million in the public battle over the measure, with supporters receiving a big financial boost from Michigan developer A. Alfred Taubman. Scientists were particularly active, participating in public debates and visiting newspaper editors to lobby for the measure.

The amendment didn't include funding to support stem cell research, but Morrison is optimistic that new funding will be forthcoming from both government and private sources. Meanwhile, "we'll be spending the next few months going through the regulatory process," he says. "It's important for people to understand this research will be very highly regulated." Research material will not be a problem. "We've been getting calls from patients this morning who want to donate embryos," says Morrison. Another UM researcher, Doug Engel, says, "We already have the embryos in our IVF clinic from donors who did not want them donated to other couples and who did want them used for biomedical research."

Michigan researchers expect that they'll soon be able to use federal money for that research when the Obama Administration follows through on its promise to lift restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell work that were imposed by President George W. Bush in 2001. Only two states--Louisiana and South Dakota--still forbid research on human embryos.

Green energy
Efforts at the polls to boost green power had a mixed day, with voters in Missouri passing a state ballot initiative requiring power companies in the state to produce 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2021. But two ballot initiatives in California intended to bolster renewable energy failed. One would have mandated power companies to produce 40% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, while the other was a $10 billion renewable energy state bond.

Democratic science powerbrokers have retained their seats in Congress. But there will likely be a major reshuffling of Senate committee posts that could affect research and training issues.

In the 435-member House of Representatives, where incomplete returns showed Democrats gaining 18 seats, the leadership of the House Science Committee will remain unchanged after victories by Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), the chair, and Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX), the ranking minority member. The House also retained its contingent of three Ph.D. physicists--representatives Vernon Ehlers (R–MI) and Rush Holt (D–NJ) easily won their eighth and sixth terms, respectively, while Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) parlayed a victory in a March special election (Science, 14 March, p. 1470) into a full 2-year term by defeating Republican Jim Oberweis. Foster's election was marked by an unusual reliance by the candidate on scientists for contributions and volunteer manpower--namely hundreds of physicists from his district's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where Foster worked as a researcher until 2006.

The chairs of the 12 House appropriations subcommittees, who together oversee all federal research budgets, also retained their seats, as did Representative David Obey (D–WI), the head of the full committee.

In contrast, the more heavily Democratic Senate will see several new faces in leadership positions. Senator Daniel Inouye (D–HI) is in line to take over the appropriations committee if the ailing Senator Robert Byrd (D–WV), 90, relinquishes his seat. Health considerations may also force Senator Edward Kennedy (D–MA) to step down as chair of the health, education, and labor panel. Senator Joe Lieberman (I–CT) could be ousted from the Democratic caucus and as chair of the government affairs panel for his vigorous support of Republican Senator John McCain's presidential candidacy. These changes at the top of the committees that oversee important science agencies could also have an impact on the lineup of the 12 spending panels in the Senate if some subcommittee chairs move into different posts amid the reshuffling.

Political scientists
A number of challengers with backgrounds in science failed in their bids for a seat in Congress. In Washington state, Democrat Darcy Burner, a former computer scientist, was challenging Republican incumbent David Reichert in a race that's still too close to call.

Posted in Scientific Community, Policy