Science in the State of the Union Address

Two major science themes were emphasized in tonight’s State of the Union: a call to action on climate change and the announcement of a new Precision Medicine Initiative (relevant excerpts from the speech shown below).

In my favorite part of the whole speech Obama chastised those who have used the ‘I’m not a scientist’ line to preface a denial of climate change: Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities, and the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate…” Obama highlighted his administration’s action on climate change including the recent agreement with China to decrease emissions, but didn’t offer specifics on any additional climate change policies.

Obama also announced a new Precision Medicine Initiative to try to harness the advances in genetic sequencing to specifically target treatments to subgroups of patients. One of the guests at the State of the Union was a cystic fibrosis patient that benefited from the drug Kalydeco, which treats the ~5% of cystic fibrosis patients with specific mutations in the CFTR protein. It remains to be seen how this initiative will be structured and whether it comes with increased funding for medical research.

Climate Change

“And no challenge, no challenge, poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.

2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.

Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists, that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities, and the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action.

In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Precision Medicine Initiative

“21st century businesses will rely on American science and technology, research and development. I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine: one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.

In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

Full transcript of the State of the Union speech can be found here.

The Post-Election Outlook for Science

Starting in January both the Senate and House will be under Republican control. Historically, this result was no surprise. Since WWII all presidents in their second term have faced a Senate of the opposite party. One of the biggest questions on my mind is what will a Republican controlled Senate mean for science policy? Sadly I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ve tried to summarize some potentially good and bad news for the coming Congress. For even more information about this topic, I highly recommend Science Magazine’s After Election 2014 series.

Science Funding

Recently a few bills offering ways to stabilize and grow the NIH budget, including the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act and the American Cures Act, have been introduced in Congress. In a Republican Congress these bills have little chance of passing, but there is some hope a bipartisan bill sponsored by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) may have more luck. The Invest for Healthy Futures Act provides an incentive for lawmakers to fund 5 federal research agencies (NIH, CDC, FDA, BARDA, and AHRQ) at least at the previous year’s level plus biomedical inflation. The funds for this bill are offset by cuts elsewhere, which is potentially attractive to conservative lawmakers. Senator Hatch  is currently the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and is a likely choice for the Chairmanship, which could also help the bill’s prospects.

Regulatory Burden

There is some hope that Congress may act on streamlining the regulatory burden on grants administration and reporting. The House passed the bipartisan Research and Development Efficiency Act in July that aims to allow researchers to spend more time actually doing science and less time on administrative tasks. This bill is championed by Representative Bucshon (R-IN), the chair of the House’s Science Committee Research Panel. As with everything, the devil is in the details and it is unclear exactly what regulations will be altered if this bill passes the full Congress. For more information on this issue, I highly recommend this Science Magazine piece by David Malakoff.

Action on Climate Change

One of the more disturbing effects of the election for science is the change in leadership in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. The current Chair is Barbara Boxer (D-CA), a strong supporter of environmental protections. The ranking Republican on the Committee is James Inhofe (R-OK), a climate change skeptic who has literally written a book arguing that position (The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future). The last time he chaired this committee, Inhofe frequently invited ‘experts‘ with dubious qualifications to argue against action on climate change. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that man-made climate change is occurring, the only controversy is how severe the effects will be and how much we need to curb emissions to prevent the most disastrous effects. Wasting time arguing over whether climate change is occurring will only hurt our country in the long run. To end the post on a slightly lighter note, I’ll leave you with coverage of this issue by the Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight.