Blinding us with science

BLINDING US WITH SCIENCE…. As expected, President Obama today reversed Bush-era restrictions on stem-cell research, but that’s not all he did today. While hosting a White House ceremony to announce the change, the president also explained a new memorandum addressing scientific integrity itself.

“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said. “It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

He said his memorandum is meant to restore “scientific integrity to government decision-making.” He called it the beginning of a process of ensuring his administration bases its decision on sound science; appoints scientific advisers based on their credentials, not their politics; and is honest about the science behind its decisions.

Alex Koppelman noted that this carried with it an “unsubtle … repudiation of the Bush administration and its attitude towards science.”

Good. The previous administration’s efforts to subvert science were unprecedented, ridiculous, and kind of dangerous. Melody Barnes, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, told reporters yesterday, “The president believes that it’s particularly important to sign this memorandum so that we can put science and technology back at the heart of pursuing a broad range of national goals.”

I am, however, a little unclear on what the memo will change, in terms of policy. Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, said the memo will order the Office of Science and Technology Policy to “assure a number of effective standards and practices that will help our society feel that we have the highest-quality individuals carrying out scientific jobs and that information is shared with the public.” That sounds great, but the details are still a little unclear.

That said, it’s hard to overstate how encouraging it is to see the president tout the general importance of science. His focus was clear in his inaugural address — “We will restore science to its rightful place” — but it goes further. Obama seems to take the issue far more seriously than most politicians and recent leaders.

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 an impressive science team, and soon after that, the president 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.”

This is obviously heartening when compared to the president’s immediate predecessor, but it’s also impressive in its own right.