Momentous times for science: UCAR and the Obama administration

Cindy Schmidt, Director, UCAR Office of Government Affairs

"It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and work to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology." 

President-elect Barack Obama, December 22, 2008

here is a new excitement as you walk the halls of Congress these days. The energy level is tremendous, the work hours longer than ever, and you have to wonder how people are keeping up. As president, Barack Obama has been true to his word and moved quickly to promote a national agenda that prominently features science and technology. The UCAR community is a major beneficiary.

Cindy SchmidtCindy Schmidt
Director, UCAR Office of Government Affairs

In the UCAR Office of Government Affairs, we work closely with Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, an advocacy firm that gives us excellent entrée and advice. The principal of the firm, April Burke, says that she has never seen such change with the arrival of a new administration in all her years in Washington. It’s change that has caused destabilization for many old coalitions, the creation of unexpected alliances, and new access for individuals and institutions that have credibility in how to approach and manage issues that are now high on the new president’s agenda—issues such as science education, unbiased research results, scientific integrity, and climate change. This is where UCAR comes in, “front and center” as April believes, with new responsibilities to provide credible scientific content and advice for policy makers.

The Obama administration quickly put together a leadership team that is capable of achieving the president’s promised restoration and elevation of science. The head of that team, John Holdren, the president’s science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, had a substantive dialogue with the UCAR Board of Trustees on May 20 during its annual Washington meeting that I was privileged to attend. After saying that UCAR “serves a very important service to the country” and acknowledging all the professional associations he’d had with people around the table, Holdren launched into a series of prepared questions and finally asked if the conversation could keep going beyond the appointed hour. This may not seem extraordinary, but his openness, accessibility, and reaching out represent a seachange that surprised and delighted everyone in that room.


Science has a simple faith, which transcends utitility...It is the faith that is the privilege of man to learn to understand, and that is his mission. If we abandon that mission under stress we shall abandon it forever, for stress will not cease. Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being. None can define its limits, or set its ultimate boundaries.

—Vannevar Bush, the nation’s first science advisorto the president (under Franklin Roosevelt)

There are many reasons for the new administration’s attention to UCAR. We have some of the most respected scientists in the world. NCAR director Eric Barron just served as chair of the “tiger team” reports on the establishment of a national climate service, which means he is in high demand on Capitol Hill as relevant bills are drafted. UCAR president Rick Anthes co-chaired the highly respected decadal survey for Earth observations on which sections of NASA and NOAA plans and budgets are based. Rosina Bierbaum, UCAR board member from the University of Michigan, was appointed by the president to serve on the prestigious and influential President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In his April 27 speech to the National Academies, in which he pledged support for research and development at 3% of the gross domestic product for the first time in history, President Obama said that “we need to engage the scientific community directly in the work of public policy.” UCAR and the UCAR community are definitely engaged.


As we work on Capitol Hill, we cannot allow Congress to lose the fact that the science of severe weather and climate change is not done. In fact, our message is that it is more important than ever as the country and world struggle with adaptation issues, the planning for which must be based on accurate predictions of regional change. And to make our science useful to stakeholders, we are creating our own unexpected alliances with state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and those working to protect and manage valuable resources such as water, agricultural land, and coastal areas. On Capitol Hill, these partnerships currently manifest themselves in a series of UCAR briefings demonstrating the link between science and climate adaptation planning.

Jane Lubchenco, the new NOAA Administrator, also met with the UCAR Board of Trustees. She is extremely upbeat, calling these “momentous times for science,” but warning of the “tension between thinking boldly and realistically.” The old obstacles are still in place—one cannot be naïve about that. The partisan chasm is still wide. The inevitable standoff between the executive and legislative branches, no matter what marginal congressional majority may emerge, will inevitably cause legislative delay and disappointment. But there is a new excitement as you walk the halls of Congress these days. And we’re part of it. Front and center.