A Critical Science Moment for the Obama Administration


For those concerned about ensuring the accurate use of science in U.S. politics and political decision-making—about stopping what everybody now calls the “war on science”—we now stand at a critical juncture. What happens next will be extremely important. That’s the topic of this post; but first, let’s review how we got here.

1. The Last Administration Misused and Abused Science To a Degree Unprecedented in Modern American Politics.

There are still a few contrarians who question this conclusion. But they’ve long since lost the argument.

A voluminous number of science abuse case studies from the Bush administration were investigated and documented by myself, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and many others across the journalistic and NGO communities. Importantly, we demonstrated that a) during the Bush years, scientific information itself was regularly distorted for political reasons (e.g., these were not just disputes over policy, but over matters of fact and what is true about the world); and b) this happened on some of the most high profile issues of the day, where the scientific facts or scientific consensus was clear and the administration undermined them anyway (like stem cells and global warming).

How did we demonstrate this? We showed government scientists (like James Hansen) were facing muzzling attempts because their views were inconvenient. We showed that political appointees (like Julie MacDonald and Phil Cooney) were interfering with scientific reports and changing them to make them less accurate, or outright inaccurate. We showed that the whistleblowers who brought these charges forward, like Rick Piltz, were repeatedly vindicated. And we showed that complaints about interferences with science were endemic within various agencies of the Bush government, something that could actually be documented through surveys of government scientists, their regular experiences of inappropriate political pressure, and their badly damaged morale (see e.g., this report from UCS on the systematic politicization of science throughout the Bush Environmental Protection Agency.)

Others raised various anecdotes about similar behaviors in other administrations. And there are certainly some valid case studies, many of which I myself wrote on. But there’s no documentation of anything so systematic, so widespread, under past Democrats or Republicans.

2. President Obama came into office promising to change all of this—to “restore science to its rightful place” in our government and political life. But it hasn’t proven that simple, and not all the problems are “fixed” simply by virtue of this changing of the guard.

Here’s where things get interesting.

In one sense, Obama solved much of the political science problem almost immediately. For instance, his administration embraced a position that was scientifically accurate—rather than flagrantly inaccurate—on global warming. That in itself was a major change and a dramatically important one, as climate change is the single most prominent science-based policy issue of our time.

But in another sense, resolving the scientific integrity problem has proved tougher than one might have initially hoped—leaving grounds both for some disappointment in the Obama administration (despite its manifestly good intentions) and also for the recognition that this is probably not an issue that admits of an easy or overnight fix.

Take, for instance, a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, showing that just in the last year or so, over 200 scientists at the FDA and USDA report they were asked to “inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or conclusions in an agency scientific document” at least once. That’s completely unacceptable, and shows that some of the agency-based science problems documented under Bush are still present, no matter how much the Obama team may want to eradicate them.

A much noted summer news report in the Los Angeles Times underscored a similar point, presenting a number of alleged science abuse case studies from agencies other than the FDA and USDA. Without necessarily saying that all these complaints are valid—they must be investigated on a case by case basis before we can reach that conclusion—the article made plain that there are still a lot of government whistleblowers out there with science-related grievances. This in itself suggests that the administration needs to do a lot more to rectify problems about interference with science in government agencies.

And it does want to: Obama science adviser John Holdren recently released a 4 page memorandum instructing government agencies on how they should be behaving with respect to science, and making clear that the sort of thing the UCS report just captured shouldn’t be going on—ever. “Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings,” writes Holdren.

Exactly so—but Holdren’s memorandum is a year and a half late in appearing, which is itself a red flag. The president requested it in March 2009, and asked for it within 120 days. The reasons for its dramatic tardiness are unclear, but given that it’s just a 4 page memorandum, and its contents could hardly be considered controversial or complex, it’s fair to assume that something happened somewhere in the government to tie this up for a very long time.

Just as with the FDA and USDA results above, that’s troubling. Scientists shouldn’t be reporting any interference with their results, and the White House science adviser shouldn’t be having any problems getting in place policies to prevent that interference. 

3. That said, attacks on the current administration for conducting a “war on science” of its own are overblown. We’re still moving in the right direction.

The concerns in the foregoing section are valid and important. But they shouldn’t be read out of context or blown out of proportion. It has not been shown, in any way or form, that the Obama administration is “just as bad” as the Bush administration when it comes to science.

Since the “war on science” narrative was used so effectively against Bush, there have been predictable attempts by conservatives to flip it. But it hasn’t worked, for several reasons—the most important being that even though the Obama administration is not without fault, it is showing an earnest effort to seriously deal with the scientific integrity problem. That’s a far cry from the last administration (which basically denied the problem existed).

And there’s another problem with many critiques of the Obama administration when it comes to science. Real problems notwithstanding, there are also many pseudo-problems out there–allegations that don’t amount to much. And they’re often being bandied about by people who aren’t using the proper analytical criteria to assess whether a serious political abuse of science actually did occur, and whether it’s in any way comparable to the Bush era abuses.

Take a prominent example of a recent science abuse charge brought against the administration. The allegation? The White House stands accused of having skewed an Interior Department report for political reasons, making it appear that a team of 7 National Academy of Engineering (NAE)-identified experts had reviewed, and favored, a controversial 6 month offshore drilling moratorium recommendation. In reality, they had not.

The facts on all this are laid out in a recent Interior Department inspector general’s (IG) report on the matter. Once you read it, though, you quickly realize that while a mistake was certainly made (and critics of the drilling moratorium were quick to cry foul), the mistake does not appear to have been intentional, or particularly devious in nature. What’s more, as soon as it was exposed, the responsible parties owned up and apologized profusely.

Here’s the sequence of events:1) Earlier this year, and following the Gulf oil spill, a team of seven NAE-identified experts were asked to review an Interior Department report containing numerous recommendations on how to increase safety measures for offshore drilling. 2) In part or largely based on these recommendations, Secretary Salazar further recommended, and President Obama decided to adopt, a controversial 6 month drilling moratorium–a high level policy decision, incidentally, not an exclusively scientific one. 3) This policy decision was included in the executive summary of the report on safety recommendations. 4) After a bout of late night, last minute editing with the White House, the very next paragraph of that executive summary said that the report’s recommendations had been peer reviewed by the aforementioned experts, but that was not true of the controversial moratorium recommendation. 5) In its final form, the report thus misleadingly suggested or implied that the experts had reviewed and signed off on the drilling moratorium itself, when they hadn’t. They’d merely reviewed the other recommendations in the document.

The experts were understandably upset when the report came out, especially as some opposed the moratorium. However, the mistake does not appear to have been intentional. And as the IG report goes on to explain exhaustively, Secretary Salazar apologized profusely to the peer reviewers once it was pointed out. He did so in writing, by phone, and also personally. A mistake that you’re sorry about, and immediately apologize for, is not really much of an abuse of science. Moreover, Salazar’s apologies stand in stark contrast to the approach of the Bush administration, where charges of science abuses that were serious and well documented were repeatedly dismissed or ignored.

If there’s a problem here that remains, it’s one that the LA Times points out: Why has no change been made to the online version of the report to reflect that this mistake was made?

Bottom Line: The Obama Administration needs to make more progress on scientific integrity. The next two years will be crucial.

To conclude: We’re now in a situation where the administration is saying the right things, and has the right intentions, but is not moving fast enough to implement them. Meanwhile, it’s clear that real scientific integrity problems persist and simply having a pro-science president—as we manifestly do—does not automatically lead to an eradication of all the bad science-related behaviors that may exist across agencies of the federal government.

With Holdren’s latest memorandum, there’s a crucial chance to push further into these agencies, and make them clean up shop. But it may not be easy. The agencies are required to report back to the White House on their scientific integrity policies within 120 days. How good a job will they do? You can bet it is going to vary.

Right now, the White House must be firm—and fully back up Holdren—in ensuring that every relevant agency puts in place a sound scientific integrity policy, and addresses all claims of abuses within its walls and various branches. Those complaint numbers need to go down the next time the Union of Concerned Scientists does one of it surveys.

On scientific integrity, we need to see the administration’s already admirable words–and strong principles–backed up by equally effective action.

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