On March 9 President Obama signed an order guaranteeing “scientific integrity” in federal policy-making, specifically repudiating the propriety of ideological influence. Under most post-Enlightenment circumstances, such a directive would have been deemed tautological. But during the past eight years of the Bush administration’s Newspeak, scientific findings have been manipulated, corrupted and/or censored in service to commercial interests rather than reproducible results.
Most public discussion of Obama’s renewed support of the sciences has centered on stem cell research, for which federal funding had heretofore been blocked–largely in response to religious conservatives, who view the fertilization and manipulation of embryos solely for research as akin to murder. While the Obama administration’s policy will indeed allow better-funded research in this area, technological advances have made the ethics of the debate somewhat archaic. Today it is possible to transform adult cells into an embryonic state, thus bypassing most religious questions of whether the embryo is a pre-born person. But the larger dimensions of this administration’s commitment have ramifications far beyond stem cells. The Obama policy also affects hiring protocols. Not only must scientific decisions be sheltered from political quarrels; science advisers are to be chosen for their expertise, not toadyism; whistle-blowers who report bad practices or questionable findings will not have to fear for their jobs. Moreover, the president has set up a Council of Advisers on Science and Technology who will report directly to him.
In addition to stem cell research, the new protocols will have significant salutary influence on research into climate change, genetics, sex education, pollution and food safety. Under Bush, the budgets for the National Institutes of Health and for the Centers for Disease Control were all but frozen. The food pyramid was redesigned so as not to offend sugar manufacturers. Cattle ranchers were blocked from testing their own herds for mad cow disease, for fear of offending the beef lobby. Climatologist James Hansen of NASA was forbidden to speak to the media about his conviction that global warming was worsening. Despite lots of evidence about the public health rewards of education about condoms and safe sex, such information was muffled in deference to the disproved efficacy of “abstinence only” as the centerpiece of AIDS and STD prevention.
Bush supported positions that allowed pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, based on individual religious beliefs instead of professional ethics. He opposed the morning-after pill and the vaccine against human papilloma virus (the virus linked to increased likelihood of cervical cancer). His White House engaged a lawyer who had once been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute to filter, alter and edit reports produced by the federal Climate Change Science Program. And, of course, Bush weakened the Endangered Species Act by allowing a wide range of government mining and building projects to proceed without any independent or scientific review of their environmental impact.