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Obama-mania and the science appointments

The masses have converged here in DC for the inauguration—and for many partygoers it kicked off on U street on Saturday night.

Vendors, two to every block, plied their Obama T-shirts and blinking fluorescent Obama buttons. In front of Ben’s Chili Bowl—almost as much of a DC icon as the Jefferson Memorial—a crowd of hungry onlookers gathered. Business must be booming since Mayor Adrian Fenty took Obama there last week for a half-smoke. At 3 a.m. people were still straining to take pictures.

At “Town” a giant club on 9th street, hundreds—maybe thousands—of sweaty dancers celebrated “DC’s Official Gay Inauguration Dance Party.” There was no sign of Rick Warren—the controversial evangelist chosen to give the invocation at the inauguration. But Barack Obama was omnipresent. Dancers scoped each other out underneath giant images of the president-elect, projected on every video screen. Tinsel and red white and blue bunting were everywhere. “He’s the best we have,” said one club-goer of the surreal mix of earsplitting techno, bare chests and political fervor.

At the 7-Eleven someone was selling “Obama water.” Said one woman in purple, “It’s better than Kool-Aid!”

That was just the beginning of inauguration frenzy. We’ll see how much more of the frenzy, and the freezing weather I can take, but I will probably be threading my bike through the crowds on the way to the national mall on Tuesday to check out the scene.

Meanwhile, here is my personal lowdown on the science- and health-related Obama nominees and appointments. What is yours?

Steven Chu—a scientist to head the Department of Energy? Wow. Chu seems to round out a line-up that takes the science on global warming seriously, including John Holdren, his pick for science advisor, Lisa Jackon, his nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Carol Browner, who will act as White House czar on climate and energy. You can complain about some of Obama’s appointments being more of the same, or more of the Clinton era, but when it comes to global warming issues it looks like change to me.

John Holdren, science advisor (Holdren will be a co-chair of PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and—the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a position restored to its former glamour, before Bush eliminated it). As former head of the Woods Hole Research Center, Holdren is known to have a grasp of issues that concern biologists. I also hope he has had the opportunity to look at a few marine embryos under the microscope—super cool.

Harold Varmus, co-chair of PCAST. The coolest thing about Varmus is that as NIH Director he declared “to support and defend the Constitution against anyone who says I can’t bring my bicycle into the building.” I am not sure exactly what PCAST does, but surely that depends on whether Obama takes his science advisors seriously—and according to his address in December, he plans to. Advocates of open-access publishing will surely get some extra clout from the appointment of Varmus, a co-founder of the Public Library of Science. The third co-chair, Eric Lander must know everyone in the business and he does think big.

Tom Daschle—head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Healthcare reform is more politics than policy—and surely Daschle knows the lay of the land. As I crushed out my (rare but savored) cigarette before getting into a cab Saturday night, I thought of the scolding I would get from Obama’s probable pick for Deputy Secretary of HHS, William Corr, currently the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Given that tobacco remains our nations number one killer—and kids the front-line consumers—the possibility of Corr’s nomination has deservedly resulted in cheers from the public health sector. Maybe he can also help Obama stay away from the evil drug.

Sanjay Gupta: Seems like nobody has listened to surgeon general since the bearded Reagan-era Dr. Koop (I don’t think he even has a first name). But if Obama wants to give the office a voice again, it makes sense to choose someone people know—such as this CNN commentator, rumored to be Obama’s top pick.

Tom Vilsack, to head the Department of Agriculture. I am waiting for politicians to show some spine and eliminate the incredible waste of taxpayer money that goes to prop up wealthy industrial farmers. Writers such as Michael Pollan convincingly argue that billions spent on crops like corn help keep our diet rich in high fructose corn syrup and low in actual fruit—and contribute to our epidemic of obesity. Meanwhile, most small farmers, like the one who delivers fresh organic vegetables to my neighborhood each week, get nothing. It’s unclear whether this former governer of Iowa has the will, desire, or mandate to put our agricultural system back on course.

Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association). A bone fide fish-hugger.

I know there is someone I’m forgetting. But I have to go sleep off that Obama cocktail…

To find out more about these nominees and for actually astute commentary, read Nature’s coverage.


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