Today, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies regarding scientific integrity. It begins:
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.
It’s wonderful to have an administration committing so clearly to the use of science to inform health and environmental decisions. To make this happen, Obama has assigned the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy the responsibility for “ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes.” The memorandum specifies that the OSTP Director must do the following:
1. Within 120 days from the date of this memorandum, the Director shall develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, based on the following principles:
(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate’s knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;
(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;
(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards;
(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;
(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised; and
(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares.
During the Bush administration, the scientific and public health communities spoke out against ways that political appointees suppressed, distorted, and ignored scientific evidence and communication about important issues, including global warming, emergency contraception, and a range of other public health issues. Today, Obama also reversed Bush policy on one of the specific issues important to health advocates: he signed an executive order revoking Bush’s limitations on federal funding of research involving embryonic stem cells.
The order requires the NIH Director to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.” As the Boston Globe’s Foon Rhee points out, though, Congress will have to decide whether to actually allocate federal money to research that involves experimenting on the embryos themselves.
It will take a long time to undo the effects of eight years of anti-science approaches – and we’ll never get back the opportunity to have tackled problems like global warming when they were less advanced than they are today. With today’s actions, though, Obama at least shows that we’re going to start moving in the right direction.