Obama's appointees: Lessons learned from science?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Over the last week, we’ve learned that the Obama administration will be largely comprised of superstar members of Washington’s elite sphere. Could Obama’s choice of seasoned insiders be the perfect complement to his outside the beltway form of strength?

David Brooks wrestled with this notion in his article, The Insider’s Crusade published yesterday in the New York Times. Brooks notes that Obama, "seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced “fresh faces” to change things in favor of Washington insiders," or has he further qualifies, “the best of Washington insiders.”

Enter my stomach (churning) and my head (spinning). Here’s the thing: over the course of the Obama campaign, I (like so many others) was deeply inspired by Obama as the personification of change. I became convinced that he would bring a new structure to the decrepit foundations of Washington politics. And I expected him to appoint *new* people into leadership positions in order to accomplish this expressed goal — people free from the putrid stench of lobbyists, political loyalties and partisan ideology so common in our capital.

But in light of Obama’s choice to appoint "gold standard" insiders, I had to pause and reflect on this reality in terms of my earlier hopes. Clearly, this is not the group of fresh face newbies insinuated by a “change” driven Obama movement. So what are the implications for potential sea change in America?

In reading Inclusion: The Politics in Medical Research by Steven Epstein for my class, "Unpacking Science" (a truly brilliant course taught by a new and promising CCT professor, Dr. Ribes – shout out!), I came upon an interesting discussion around reform movements in medicine that could serve as fodder for Obama’s recent decisions. Describing the ways in which women’s rights, civil rights and AIDS activists have fought for inclusion of underrepresented populations in biomedical research, specifically clinical trials, Epstein writes:

“Several analysts of social movements have pointed to an array of cases that suggest that this is by no means unusual – that insiders (or what Kelly Moore refers to as “mediators”) frequently prove central to the political process by which institutions become forced to change.”

He goes on further to note that in the wake of the medical reform movement’s relative success at obtaining inclusion for underrepresented groups, the tipping point occurred when the line between advocates and institutions effectively blurred. As Epstein concedes, “it is hard to know where the movement ends and the state begins.”

So… with his history of grassroots organizing, and millions of new voices now behind him, will Obama serve as the dream mediator between activists and politicians? Can he bring about the sea change we’ve all been foaming at the mouth to witness?

I’m willing to put my bets on the table and contend that yes, reform, whether sought after in science or politics, is possible when a convergence occurs between bottom up and top down approaches. Should we extend a toast then, to this moment in U.S. politics in which we find ourselves meeting in the middle? Should we temper our previous idealism and consider that institutional change — even with a bohemoth institution like the U.S. government — may only work if it occurrs within that institution? Is this the best revolution we can hope for with so much at stake? Or is the answer more complicated, requiring us to wait and see…