One year ago yesterday, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing his science adviser, John Holdren, to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making within 120 days. As the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a press release yesterday, the strategy still hasn’t been delivered.
Signing the order was a celebrated move, especially after the practice distorting science during the Bush administration. For example, a 2008 NASA investigation, launched at the request of 14 U.S. Senators, found that “during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.” (View a pdf of the report here.)
So scientists were heartened by President Obama’s words on March 9, 2009: “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. 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.”
But nine months later, the plan still hasn’t been unveiled. Though the Obama administration has been more supportive of science, “it's moving too slowly to establish badly needed reforms,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Scientific Integrity Program. “Some agencies are moving ahead, but the administration must provide specific guidelines for all agencies to meet President Obama's pledge to stamp out political interference in science."
Progress has been made: NASA’s new media policy allows scientists to speak more freely with the press, and the Environmental Protection Agency has made its process for evaluating toxic chemicals more transparent.
But UCS also pointed to a George Washington University report published last week that found federal scientists hadn’t seen a noticeable improvement since Obama took office.
The heel dragging may be over soon. "We believe we are very close to having a great set of recommendations," Rick Weiss, director of strategic communications at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy the told New Scientist, adding that it’s been difficult to find procedures that work for the many federal agencies with an interest in science.