Obama’s Scientific Integrity Memo

March 9th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today, Obama signed an executive order lifting Bush’s ban on the use of federal funds for stem cell research, along with a memo addressing the general issue of scientific integrity in executive branch agencies. Here’s an excerpt from the memo:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.  If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.  To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.  The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

For many, this is not just about opening the door to a particular kind of medical research; they view it as a fundamental change in the role played by science in policy.

This seems to emerge in the media coverage of the event. There is considerable discrepancy between the actual contents of the memo, and what the media (and those they interview) have been saying about it. For example, on NPR:

DeGette says that during the Bush administration, scientific policy was often dictated by things other than scientific evidence.

Well, yes, of course it was. As is often said on this blog, policy is never dictated by science, and Obama’s memo says nothing that would suggest otherwise. It is very much focused on process and openness, but makes no statements about how science should influence decision making.

The Washington Post quotes Harold Varmus (former NIH director, Nobel laureate, and Obama advisor):

Today’s executive order “is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice . . . instead of dogma in developing federal policy”

This suggests that you can somehow use science instead of values to develop policy. But Obama’s stem cell decision is no less value driven than was George Bush’s. Regardless of your position, to come to a conclusion on the ethics of stem cell research you must wrestle with difficult issues such as the acceptability of destroying human embryos. Obama’s words and actions suggest nothing like the “determination” Varmus describes.

It’s important to remember that this event represents a political success — a shift away from one set of values, and toward another (though of course, it is not so black and white). It is not, by any means, a shift from politics toward science. Even if that were possible, it’s hard to see why it would be desirable.

5 Responses to “Obama’s Scientific Integrity Memo”

  1. docpine Says:

    Thanks for the post, Roger. I assumed from the press coverage that the memo was a wee bit silly “we will now use science directly to make policy”, but I can see that the memo, at least the part you cited, is quite sensible.

    But while I was thinking about the press coverage, I was doing a thought experiment.. if we are going to run the government based on science, perhaps we should select government leaders based on science? We could develop new scientific fields and thereby employ more people and help with our economic situation. For example, one field might be called “duxology” from the Latin for leader, which would study what makes good leaders and develop and test different criteria using historical data and model projections, have meetings and conferences, departments at universities, grants from NSF, journals, etc. Of course, then we wouldn’t need political conventions, advertising, voting machines, nor chads, hanging or otherwise…hmm. maybe that’s not so bad…

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    docpine, This post was from Ryan ;-)

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:

    Lots of people are under the impression Roger writes everything here, rather than just the lion’s share of everything here.

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  7. docpine Says:

    I am glad Ryan covered it. Thanks, Ryan!

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  9. cspawn » Blog Archive » Your Research and the Transition Says:

    [...] get started, I’ll point to some stuff I wrote earlier this month for the Prometheus blog (here and here) on the general relationship between science and politics under the Obama Administration. [...]