Monday, President Obama overturned his predecessor’s very unpopular embryonic stem cell research restrictions, a move drawing widespread media attention. But it wasn’t the only action on the science policy front. In a step that demonstrated just how closely the stem cell issue now fits into the broader “war on science” argument, the president simultaneously issued a memorandum aimed to set in motion the restoration of scientific integrity across the breadth of the federal government. The document calls upon the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy–which should be John Holdren, except that as far as we know, his nomination is still mysteriously held up-to head a sweeping effort to this end. In other words, Holdren is to clean house, and set up structures to ensure there’s no more monkey business involving the role of science in government.
This is an idea that I and others–especially the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS-have explicitly pushed for in the past. The basic notion is to be able to conduct an intellectually sound version of what Bush science adviser John Marburger himself purported to do back in 2004, after leading scientists, organized by UCS, brought scathing charges against the administration on scientific integrity grounds. The UCS claimed that scientific information had been undermined across the government, at agencies ranging from the National Cancer Institute to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was among the earliest-and by far the most prominent-airings of what would become the Bush “war on science” allegation.
In his response, Marburger took the UCS head-on. He claimed that his office conducted a “thorough investigation into all the allegations”–which necessarily involved getting information about what had happened from each federal agency involved in a science scandal. And yet Marburger summarily dismissed the charges in a way that few observers found remotely credible. One of those unsatisfied observers? John Holdren, who told me of Marburger’s effort for my book The Republican War on Science: “One supposes he was ordered to produce a rebuttal, but they could have produced a more nuanced rebuttal than that crass, heavy-handed, and grossly wrong one that they issued.” Indeed, in my book I compared many of the original charges with Marburger’s attempted rebuttal, and found the latter largely wanting on points of substance.
Now Holdren will get to try his own hand at this scientific integrity business. Thanks to the president’s memorandum, there are many reasons to expect he’ll do a better job of it. The memorandum makes official that this is not to be a rearguard, wagon circling action, but rather, forward-looking and comprehensive. Moreover, the federal agencies and their leaders have to cooperate with the science adviser to make sure it’s done properly.
Officially, Holdren is to take no more than 120 days to come up with a plan for how the White House can ensure, across the government, that scientific information is used properly in decision-making; that such decision-making is transparent; that scientific whistleblowers are heeded and protected; that scientific advisory committees are properly staffed with experts rather than ideological hacks, and so on. Most important, there will be rules that agencies must follow to ensure scientific integrity; and procedures in place to investigate, should anyone allege that they haven’t done so.
Provided the executive branch does indeed set up a system set up like this, it would be a huge step forward. The whole problem with the Bush administration’s responses to many allegations of political interference with science is that the answer was always the same: Nothing to see here folks, move along. Repeatedly, Bush spokespeople-Marburger, and also various press secretaries-simply asserted that all the whistleblowers were wrong, all the journalists were wrong, heck, anybody was wrong who suggested anything untoward had happened. They didn’t seriously investigate the problems; they dismissed the idea that there were any problems. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very credible approach.
Now, not only can we hope for a more transparent method of dealing with any potential new politics and science allegations; we can also hope for a much stronger presidential science adviser with the power to investigate them. For that’s perhaps the most significant aspect of the President’s scientific integrity memorandum. It puts John Holdren on a par with the heads of the federal agencies–with the cabinet–who need to report to him to show that their houses are in order. In other words, he’ll serve as a central science czar whose role is to provide good advice and preserve informational integrity, and who will actually be listened to and heeded.
Now, if we could only get Holdren through the Senate and into his job.
Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”