Disappointment is the frequent outcome of science’s yearning to be honoured and heeded by politics. For scientists appalled by George W. Bush’s indifference to scientific data and values, candidate Obama looked so promising. And even more so when he vowed in his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A few months later, he told the National Academy of Sciences: ‘Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’ Nearly three years later the ‘rightful place’ is still unspecified, and the wants and ways of science have not triumphed over the needs and methods of electoral politics. Silly to think they ever would.
Medical research has long been the darling of American politics, left and right, in times rich and poor. Now, however, the veneration of spending cuts and deficit reduction, from the Tea Party to the White House, is threatening the world’s greatest bankroll for medical science, the National Institutes of Health. The biomedical establishment is resounding with warnings of delayed cures for cancer, blighted scientific careers, and the rise of China. The financial threat has also inspired unusually frank talk about the way NIH spends its money, large amounts of which never get to the laboratory.