Chemical companies worry Obama could bring over-regulation, but chemists upbeat at funding plans


The chemical industry’s guarded response to the election of Democrat Barack Obama as the 44th US president stands in stark contrast to the enthusiastic reception he received from chemists. 

Barack Obama

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a major trade group representing chemical companies, is concerned that US regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will more aggressively pursue regulations to control, or further reduce, emissions under an Obama administration. 

’We are going to be watching to see if people are overreaching to the point that they are putting a regulatory burden on our industry that will render us non-competitive in this international market,’ Cal Dooley, ACC’s president and CEO, tells Chemistry World.

In fact, Obama has set as a goal an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Specifically, he plans to start lowering emissions immediately by establishing ’strong annual reduction targets’ and implementing a mandate of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

However, Dooley emphasises the need for ’a very judicious approach’ to address greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to ensure that the new president gives adequate consideration to the chemical industry, which uses a lot of natural gas and petroleum products as a feedstock for its materials and technologies.

Anti-business mood

The US National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) is also keeping an eye on the regulatory apparatus. ’The mood in Washington is the most anti-business that I have seen in the last 15 years,’ says Chris Jahn, NACD’s president and CEO. ’The mood is to regulate more and raise taxes, and we are very concerned about that.’ 

Meanwhile, a very different and upbeat atmosphere abounds at the non-profit American Chemical Society (ACS), the professional organisation representing chemists, chemical engineers, and scientists in related fields.

’The election was an exciting and momentous event that portends very good things for US science and, by extension, chemistry,’ ACS official Glenn Ruskin tells Chemistry World. ’We have a chance for a clean slate and great hope for going forward - there is a renewed spirit of enthusiasm and commitment.’

Academic chemists are energised by Obama’s promise to set the research budgets of key science agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science on a trajectory to double over the next ten years. These three agencies targeted for hefty boosts are the ones through which the US government largely funds chemistry.

"The sustainability of the supply of US chemists could be in jeopardy, and US funding of chemical research and infrastructure will remain under stress" - Glenn Ruskin, American Chemical Society

Federal support for science increased on all fronts during the first term of outgoing Republican President George W. Bush, which lasted from 2001 to 2004. That era represented a windfall for biomedical research as NIH saw the completion of its five-year budget doubling plan, and defence R&D and other domestic science agencies also experienced significant budget increases. But most federal research agencies have seen flat or declining trends during his second term, which ends January 20, 2009. The negative development was primarily due to the growing national deficit and Bush’s determination to hold down domestic spending. 

But there is hope that Obama can help reverse course for the US scientific enterprise, and chemistry in particular. ’The sustainability of the supply of US chemists could be in jeopardy, and US funding of chemical research and infrastructure will remain under stress,’ warns ACS’ Ruskin. ’But a lot of that stress is removed if we see a doubling of those budgets over a ten year period, as Obama proposes.’ 

The Bush effect

Overall, US chemists also express hope that Obama can restore integrity to the US government’s scientific decision-making process. The Bush administration has come under fire from the public and Congress for taking steps to weaken environmental regulations governing the release of chemicals into the air and water. It has also been accused for allowing corporate interests, including those of the chemical industry, to have undue influence over scientific decision-making at agencies like EPA. 

The outgoing administration has further been criticised as challenging the Clean Air Act by establishing smog standards that do not meet scientific recommendations, trying to ease restrictions on industrial pollution, and stalling on the regulation of greenhouse gases. In terms of water standards, the White House was lambasted in September for allegedly successfully pressuring EPA not to set a safety standard for the controversial chemical perchlorate in public drinking water.

For his part, Obama has vowed to listen to the scientific experts that sit on federal agency advisory committees and ’reverse the Bush administration’s attempt to chip away at our nation’s clean air and water standards.’ He is also expected to reverse Bush’s 2001 restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. 

It remains unclear, however, whether Obama can deliver on his campaign promises. His attention and resources could be diverted by military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic crisis that led to a $700 billion federal rescue plan for America’s troubled financial institutions.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA

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