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Scientists See New Dawn For Science Under Obama

In the eight years President George Bush has been in office, many scientists have lamented the way he and his administration have treated scientific research. Some of them say research was restricted for religious reasons, and at times study results were ignored or altered.

Now many local scientists say they're optimistic that medical and scientific research will gain new respect under Barack Obama.

At David Scadden's laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, more than a hundred researchers are at work studying stem cells. They're trying to use the regenerative powers of stem cells to find new ways to fight disease. As Scadden walks through his lab he points to a cluster of scientists.

SCADDEN: This is a group that works on zebrafish where the fish, if it has an injured heart, for example, can regrow that part of the heart that was injured.

The lab is longer than a football field and has lots of sun and lots of expensive equipment. It's actually more equipment than Scadden wants. That's because federal rules require him to buy more devices than the lab really needs. The reason? The Bush administration believes stem cell research is ethically wrong when it involves destroying human embryos. So the government won't pay for research on certain stem cell lines.

SCADDEN: So we've had to duplicate equipment. We have a piece of equipment that's somewhere around $700,000. We had to buy a second one because we need it. It's an absolutely essential part of our analysis.

Scadden walks over to a pair of devices that look like oversized bread boxes and are used to analyze DNA. Identical pieces of equipment. Side by side. One has a green sticker. The other, a red one.

SCADDEN: These are about $45,000.

REPORTER: $45,000?


REPORTER: You could have done everything on one if it weren't for the restrictions?

SCADDEN: Correct. Right. But now we have to have that one, as well.

REPORTER: And it's literally red for stop?

SCADDEN: Green for go.

Scientific research has encountered many red lights during the Bush years. That's left some scientists frustrated and demoralized.

MARC KASTNER: There has just been a feeling that science has not been respected.

Marc Kastner is dean of science at MIT. He says the Bush administration's lack of respect for science is well-documented. There are the NASA scientists who claim their research on global warming was suppressed. There was the controversy within the scientific community over a government report that found a link between abortion and breast cancer.

KASTNER: The administration didn't listen to scientists when they didn't say what they wanted to hear.

But Kastner says he's encouraged that, even before officially taking office, Barack Obama has already chosen several high-profile scientists for government positions. A Nobel Laureate in physics is tapped to head the Department of Energy. A chemical engineer as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. A Harvard physicist who's a leading authority on climate change as White House science advisor. Obama has also indicated he may lift the restrictions on stem cells. Again, Marc Kastner of MIT.

KASTNER: I am very hopeful. Very hopeful. We've never seen such a positive start to an administration.

KAREN ANTMAN: Hallelujah!

That's Karen Antman, dean of the Boston University School of Medicine. She's also optimistic that Obama will put science front and center — not only in the lab, but also in the federal budget.

ANTMAN: I see no indication that people will be messing with the science, and there's a decent chance that at least modestly the funding will increase.

By "the funding," she means the budget of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH budget has flatlined in recent years. That's made it harder to get government funds for scientific research. But many science groups are recommending the NIH get more than a billion dollars in the new federal economic stimulus package. They're also hoping it will get an increase in its overall budget. Still, Antman of the BU med school is keeping her expectations in check.

NANCY TARBELL: I worry because there is a sense of euphoria out there and I think that with the constraints on the economy and on the federal budget that it's not going to change dramatically.

Nancy Tarbell is also cautiously optimistic. She's dean of faculty at Harvard Medical School, and she worries that promising scientists have left the field in recent years — or never bothered to enter it — due to the cloud that's been hanging over the scientific community.

TARBELL: The worry there is: Have we already had some loss of brilliant young people, the impact of which we couldn't know for years?

Tarbell also wonders how the ones who've stuck it out will find jobs. Still, she says the scientific community's sense of excitement about the new president is widespread.

TARBELL: The mood now, with Obama, is clearly one of high hopes.

And after eight rough years, scientists are clinging to those hopes despite the economic obstacles in their way.

This program aired on January 16, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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