By David Malakoff and Jeffrey Mervis
George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election after promising to be a “compassionate conservative” who would cut taxes, promote education, and boost the economy. His presidency, however, soon became dominated by the 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But history will note that two science-focused events bracketed the 9/11 attacks. A month earlier, Bush wrestled with whether to allow federal funding for research involving stem cells taken from human embryos. And just a week after the attacks, someone mailed anthrax-filled letters to media outlets and politicians, killing five people and prompting the White House to launch a massive effort to improve bioterror defenses.
New presidents typically move into the White House neither expecting to spend much time on such arcane technical issues, nor prepared to. But history shows that, ready or not, every president ends up grappling with a host of science-related policy issues or crises (see historical timeline below).
President Gerald Ford, for instance, spent much of 1976 dogged by what the media dubbed the swine flu fiasco. After a new strain of the H1N1 swine flu virus appeared in soldiers, public health experts urged a massive vaccination campaign. Some 40 million Americans got the vaccine, but the effort was plagued by missteps, and the flu turned out to be less dangerous than believed. Some analysts believe the episode contributed to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter that year.
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