Obama is seeking $31.311 billion in overall program level funding for NIH

President-Elect Barack Obama’s recent appointment of four scientific luminaries to major posts in his new administration marks an ambitious attempt to improve U.S. science policy and implementation, especially in light of President Bush’s  reluctance to move forward on addressing global warming and his opposition to new embryonic stem cell research initiatives.

Obama named John Holdren, Ph.D., a Harvard physicist, as his Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., a marine biologist at Oregon State University, as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He also selected Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher Harold Varmus, M.D., former director of the NIH and current president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Eric Lander, Ph.D., founding director of the Broad Institute and an elite MIT biologist who was a driving force in the Human Genome Project, as Cochairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

An avid technophile, as evidenced by the image of his ever-present cell phone and masterful use of the internet during the presidential campaign, the President-Elect is well versed and conversant on a wide range of health and technology issues. Obama supports making math and science education a priority. In addition, he has long been an advocate of increased embryonic stem cell studies and more funding for NIH research.

Obama wants to create an inter-agency task force on genomics research, modernize FDA review of genomics tests, and expand support to genomics researchers, including funding and creating a new mechanism to allow researchers across the country to access and analyze genomics research, according to Steve Murphy, M.D., the founder of a personalized medicine practice in New York City and clinical genetics fellow at Yale University.

“As president, Obama will continue to support advances in personalized medicine to help ensure early detection and treatment of cancer and other diseases,” notes Dr. Murphy.

Right for Life Science Tools and Omics Research
It would seem that Drs. Varmus and Lander fit right into Obama’s plans for biotechnology. Both have extensive research experience in genomics and cellular biology and each brings strong administrative expertise gained from their positions at their respective institutions.

“Eric Lander is one of the great thought leaders in genetics and bioinformatics and he has helped transform biology,” says David Botstein, Ph.D., professor of genomics and director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. “Who better to advise the president on such issues than Dr. Lander.”

John Coffin, Ph.D., principal investigator and American Cancer Society Research professor in the department of biology at Tufts University, considers Dr. Varmus a scientific colleague and sometimes a competitor. “We have worked together on a number of projects including a couple of books. I have huge respect for him as a scientist, scholar, administrator, and leader. Since the election, I had hoped that he would find a senior leadership position in the new administration and am delighted to hear that he has been appointed to such a role.”

“Harold has an extraordinary sense of quality in science as well as a knack for presenting it to lay audiences like members of the United States Congress. These characteristics served him (and us) very well when he was NIH director. I think the scientific community and President-elect Obama also will be well served by his appointment to this position.”

Earlier this week, Isaac Ro and Jing (Judy) Dai, life science tools (LST) and services analysts at the healthcare equity research firm Leerink Swann wrote an upbeat industry update for their companies in relation to Drs. Varmus and Lander. “We think [their] recent appointments are positive for LST spending in general and for genomics in particular.

“Both Varmus and another key appointment, Eric Lander, are highly regarded experts in the field of genomics. We think increased funding in favor of high-density genotyping and next-generation sequencing is now more likely to continue under the Obama Administration, thanks to these appointments.”

Global Warming and the Environment
Obama wants to tackle global warming by weaning America away from overseas oil and supporting the development of energy alternatives such as biofuels, wind, and solar power. “Few challenges facing America, and the world, are more urgent than combating climate change,” he said in a recent video.

“The science is beyond dispute, and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season. Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security.”

Thus the appointments of Drs. Holdren and Lubchenco can be viewed as those of symbolic generals who will lead the battle against global warming. Dr. Holdren has spent much of his career focused on energy and climate change research. In an opinion piece published in 1998 for the American Physical Society, Dr. Holdren wrote that “the greenhouse gas most responsible for the growing threat of human-induced disruption of climate is carbon dioxide, some of it emitted by deforestation, but mostly coming from the combustion of fossil fuels.” To effectively deal with the greenhouse issue, he called for “increased investments in the science of climate and climate-change impacts.”

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, applauded the choice of Dr. Holdren. “President-elect Obama’s comments on the importance of scientific discovery and his appointment of Professor John Holdren indicate that the incoming Administration is truly committed to continuing America’s global leadership in technological innovation,” says Greenwood. “The country that invented the airplane, the jet engine, and the internet can continue to lead the world in innovation given the proper investment incentives and public policies.”

In granting a Heinz Award to Dr. Lubchenco for her research on the environment, the award staff noted that “Dr. Jane Lubchenco was one of the first scientists to present this dilemma [of drastic climate and ecological change] to policy makers and the public. A firm believer in the ability of science to improve the quality of human and ecological life, she has been a pioneer in the practice of creating environmental policy through the widest distribution of scientific research.”

Pharma May Not Rejoice
Despite the overall optimism on President-Elect Obama’s choices for these important science and technology positions, some in the pharmaceutical industry remain concerned over Obama’s stated intention of getting drug prices under control. His goals to increase the use of less expensive generic drugs, permit the importation of cheaper drugs from developed countries, and allow Medicare to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical and biotech companies to obtain lower drug prices make a number of drug industry officials nervous.

So it should not come as a surprise if they don’t join the chorus singing “Hail to the Chief” on January 20.

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