Mooney Talks Past Marburger II: Science Policy Boogaloo

January 27th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today I’ll get into some issues in Mooney’s hatchet job where he and Marburger talk past each other.  All quotations not otherwise attributed are from Mooney.

I’d like to indulge in one final Bush-era diatribe against the longest-ever serving White House science adviser: John Marburger, who has been a poor advocate indeed for the science world.

Since when is the president’s science adviser a science advocate?  Let’s look at the underlying law dictating how the Office of Science and Technology Policy should operate (Public Law 94-282).  Some relevant text:

The Act authorizes OSTP to:

  • Advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs;
  • Lead an interagency effort to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets;
  • Work with the private sector to ensure Federal investments in science and technology contribute to economic prosperity, environmental quality, and national security;
  • Build strong partnerships among Federal, State, and local governments, other countries, and the scientific community;
  • Evaluate the scale, quality, and effectiveness of the Federal effort in science and technology.

There’s a lot of wiggle room here. But what isn’t here is some dictum that scientific outcomes advanced by OSTP dictate policy outcomes.  This path is a small reach from the encouragement of open inquiry and publication without censorship.  Many people can’t resist the urge to reach.

Marburger was responsible to the President, first and foremost.  He provided scientific and technical information to the White House when needed, in the way that they wanted it.  It’s within their rights to dictate how they want the information and how they use it – if they do at all.  The same is true for President Obama and his future OSTP director.  Would Dr. Holdren resign if President Obama opts for different climate change policies than what he recommends?  I doubt it.

This is the problem some are concerned about with respect to Holdren – advocacy over advice.  If Energy Secretary Chu’s confirmation hearings are any indication, expect some walkback of Holdren’s strong climate policy statements in the future.

Mooney writes as though Marburger is the only person focused on science policy as budget policy.  ASTRA, Research!America, and many scientific societies are very interested in science budgets, often to the exclusion of most anything else.  The whole post-war debate over how the federal government would support scientific research revolved around how federal research dollars would be treated.

Mooney discusses specific budget numbers, and their recent decline (in terms of real dollars, accounting for inflation).  The implication is that blame for this can be squarely placed at the feet of Bush and Marburger.  However, there has been little in the way of leadership from the Democratic Congress to make sure that authorized levels of funding from the America COMPETES Act were appropriated.  These dollars are a perennial loser in budget battles.  A Democratically-controlled Congress found it either impossible or undesirable to fight for that money.  Where’s your disappointment in them, Chris?

“let’s note that on the question of ethics, the Bush administration was also wrong, and the 2001 policy in fact unethical, because it designated several cell lines as eligible for research that did not meet basic ethics guidelines for informed consent”

While there is a problem here, where many of the stem cell lines were obtained in ways that did not follow accepted informed consent procedures, Mooney ignores what is – at least politically – a much bigger ethical issue.  There is a legitimate ethical consideration related to definitions of life.  Science can inform that decision, but not dictate it.  To ignore it, something a president would be more likely to pay attention to, is to continue attacking a strawman that isn’t there.

“This [Marburger's claim that the visibility of the science community was a political strategy of the Democratic party], too, is false. I’m happy to say that I watched the entire politics and science issue evolve over the course of the Bush administration. It wasn’t that the Democrats stirred up the scientists; rather, the scientists stirred up the Democrats and other progressive advocates.”

These chicken-or-the-egg arguments miss a relevant political use of the “War on Science.”  I have noted then-Senator Clinton’s use of the term to include decreased aerospace research, muddling what was focused on concerns over misrepresenting data into traditional budget squabbles.  This mission creep aside, it was more common to see Democrats simply lumping in allegations of scientific tampering or misuse in their laundry lists of Bush Administration malfeasance.  What little direct mention science received in the recent inaugural address is consistent with this framing – “we will restore science to its rightful place.”  Democrats took advantage of a potential new voting block and added to their rhetorical weapons.  Those are, so far, the only explicit outcomes of listening to the science advocates.

Science and technology can thrive while being ignored in certain policy decisions.  It is completely possible for resources to flow toward research and development, and for policies to encourage the use of science and technology, while scientific information that would undercut desired policies is shunted aside.  So it is possible for both Mooney and Marburger to be right.

A war suggests a total effort that simply isn’t there in the case of the “War on Science.”  There were certain instances of science-related conduct that were problematic and/or skirted the intent of the law (and may be again), but there was no systematic subversion, nor any particular master plan, which is what I expect when I see a war.  Mooney and others don’t do science advocacy any favors if they continue to cling to this unrealistic notion of a “War on Science” long past the point of political effectiveness.

One Response to “Mooney Talks Past Marburger II: Science Policy Boogaloo”

  1. tarpon Says:

    Science doesn’t mean what it once did. In the old days, it meant truth, now it means how can we fool the ignorant today.