How Hillary Would Restore Scientific Integrity to U.S. Policymaking

Disclaimer: This series of posts is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Rather, we are paying attention to Hillary because she has gone farther than any other candidate thus far in injecting science policy issues into the presidential race--and promising, if elected, to address the kinds of problems highlighted in The Republican War on Science and by The Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations. We sincerely hope other candidates of both parties will follow Hillary's lead. And we already know, thanks to Bora's intrepid reporting, that John Edwards shares many of her sentiments....

Last week, Hillary Clinton unveiled a detailed list of policy proposals for restoring the integrity of science to the federal government. Among other things, she promises to lift Bush's stem cell "ban" (her word, not ours), restore the position of presidential science adviser to its former glory, and encourage Congress to reinstall something like the Office of Technology Assessment.

These are all good ideas--though the term "ban" is problematic--and in fact, probably deserve their own posts. For now, though, let's consider some of the less high-profile policies that Hillary is endorsing as a group.

What's actually most heartening to me is a rather bureaucratic-sounding proposal: Hillary says that if she's president, all agency and department heads will have to file yearly reports detailing what they've done to ensure scientific integrity in their various fiefdoms. This might sound like just more paperwork, but actually, it's a true sea change from what we saw under the Bush administration. First and most importantly, it acknowledges up front that there is a problem here (something that so far as I know, the current government has never admitted). Moreover, once such a mechanism has been set in place, scientific integrity will have to be on everybody's radar, in every part of the federal government.

As an addition, and as I suggested in Harper's a while back, I think it would be helpful to specifically name the presidential science adviser as point person for organizing this reporting process. It's one thing to have all the agencies conducting their own investigations; it's another to have someone in the White House culling it all together and laying, on the president's desk, a kind of annual "scientific integrity" summary.

As additional policies, Hillary says she would ban--by executive order--political appointees from "altering or removing scientific conclusions in government publications without any legitimate basis for doing so." Further, she would "prohibit unwarranted suppression of public statements by government scientists." Both of which are fine and good; but on that latter point, it seems to me the real issue is the media policies that some agencies, like NOAA, have in place--media policies that might bring about tacit rather than overt suppression, discouraging government scientists from being entirely forthright with the media either because the policies are insidious or simply because they're Byzantine and borderline impossible to understand. So on this point, I would hope that Hillary--or whoever turns out to be our president--would go further and look specifically into media policies at agencies.

Hillary also wants to protect the integrity of federal advisory committees, reverse Bush's directive giving political appointees unprecedented control over the regulatory process (a big deal, as this would essentially be a ceding of power on the White House's part back to the expert agencies), and strengthen whistleblower protections for government scientists. All to the good. Finally, she wants to ramp up the National Assessment process for studying climate change impacts to the United States, with a particular emphasis on how to mitigate them and adapt to them--an area where the Bush administration has almost maliciously dropped the ball.

All of these are great proposals--though I think they could benefit by some of the small additions listed above. Most important, I'm anxious to see the presidential science adviser brought in to administrate on some of this stuff and make sure that it really happens. If our next president has a trusted and excellent science adviser charged with these crucial tasks, we might really wind up with the best possible outcome: Well informed policymaking going forward again, and a federal government that talented young scientists actually want to come and work for.

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"a federal government that talented young scientists actually want to come and work for."

A point worth repeating.

But is her talking political rhetoric that was put out to test the waters. If there is no back-swell, will the rhetoric disappear into history? And if back-swell, will everyone in the bunch jump on board and make this meaningful. How many others besides yourself are shouting out and is the should loud and clear enough for the public to start listening?

"scientific integrity will have to be on everybody's radar" (my emphasis)

A much better phrase than the current emphasis on "sound science," as interpreted by those who twist "scientific uncertainty" to mean "dubious" and "error bars" to mean "errors."

(See the review of Chris' The Republican War on Science by yours truly by clicking my name. That's where I realized how unsound the "sound science" policy was.)

Chris, how do you think California will react if the next administration makes federal money available for all human embryonic stem cell lines? If Hillary has her way then the CIRM could end up mostly superfluous. There were some predictions that scientists may move their labs to qualify for CIRM funding but I imagine that would be up in the air until after the election.

By Herb West (not verified) on 09 Oct 2007 #permalink

I'm all ready for science to become more important in this political cycle. I just learned that Barack Obama will be visiting Madison next monday, I'm going to try to see if I can ask him some questions. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment on my blog.

I wrote a post about who would make an interesting science advisor to the president a while back:

"For now, though, let's consider some of the less high-profile policies that Hillary is endorsing as a group."

Something not addressed effectively in the Intersection's extensive coverage is that in terms of a national election, none of the issues Sen. Clinton mentioned were high profile. They matter to readers of this blog, but do not resonate with the public at large, or this statement would have gotten more attention outside of blogs connected with science and/or technology.

Chris did a fine job explaining how Sen. Clinton framed the science and technology policies she promises to implement. But she hasn't, nor have the science and technology communities, framed the issues in such a way that they will be anything more than fringe in this election.

If these issues mattered, other candidates, on both sides, would have responded and responded quickly. So while careful analysis of what Sen. Clinton said is useful, a better analysis would be why this isn't a requirement in a Presidential election and how things can be framed in such a way that it is.

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 10 Oct 2007 #permalink