A new era for science

A NEW ERA FOR SCIENCE…. Chris Mooney had a great piece in Slate last week, noting that the “war on science” is finally over. We’ve seen the end of an era in which an administration attacked “the integrity of scientific information — its biased editing of technical documents, muzzling of government researchers, and shameless dispersal of faulty ideas about issues like global warming.”

After some very frustrating years, it seems the scientific community finally has reason to celebrate. The New York Times reported today that many scientists are “exuberant” about Barack Obama becoming president, and staff members throughout the government’s scientific agencies “reported being teary-eyed with joy.”

“If you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces,” said Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter. “It’s not just getting money. It’s his recognition of what science can do to bring this country back in an innovative way.”

On issues like stem cells, climate change, sex education and contraceptives, the Bush administration sought to tame and, in some cases, suppress the findings of many of the government’s scientific agencies. Besides discouraging scientific pronouncements that contradicted administration policies, officials insisted on tight control over even routine functions of key agencies.

And then, here comes Obama, who won plaudits for noting in his inaugural address: “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

Indeed, maybe I’m just especially sensitive to the issue, but I’ve noticed that the new president seems to take the issue far more seriously than most politicians, beyond just Tuesday’s speech. When he introduced a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as his choice for Energy Secretary, Obama said, “His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts.” Soon after, he introduced one of the most impressive science teams any White House has ever seen.

And soon after that, Obama devoted one of his weekly multimedia addresses to the issue: “[T]he truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”

Is it any wonder so many scientists are “exuberant”?