The Importance of Obama's Scientific Integrity Memorandum

Amid the big stem cell news, the second half of what the president did yesterday--in essence, order his science adviser to conduct a government-wide scientific housecleaning--has gotten less attention. But it's remarkably important if we want to get over the science problems of the Bush years. In my latest Science Progress column, I explore the meaning of the president's memorandum setting forth this objective. To wit:

The whole problem with the Bush administration's responses to many allegations of political interference with science is that the answer was always the same: Nothing to see here folks, move along. Repeatedly, Bush spokespeople-Marburger, and also various press secretaries-simply asserted that all the whistleblowers were wrong, all the journalists were wrong, heck, anybody was wrong who suggested anything untoward had happened. They didn't seriously investigate the problems; they dismissed the idea that there were any problems. Needless to say, it wasn't a very credible approach.

Now, not only can we hope for a more transparent method of dealing with any potential new politics and science allegations; we can also hope for a much stronger presidential science adviser with the power to investigate them. For that's perhaps the most significant aspect of the President's scientific integrity memorandum. It puts John Holdren on a par with the heads of the federal agencies-with the cabinet-who need to report to him to show that their houses are in order. In other words, he'll serve as a central science czar whose role is to provide good advice and preserve informational integrity, and who will actually be listened to and heeded.

Now, if we could only get Holdren through the Senate and into his job.

You can read the full column here.

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A bit off topic, but here is the mother of all false balance stories from the Columbia Journalism Review:

What role did the press play in diffusing financial warnings in the years leading up to the current crisis?

We canât answer that question in its entiretyâespecially not in one postâbut we can offer an example for your consideration: the pressâs supremely insufficient response to an important 1994 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warning about the dangers of derivativesâthose largely unregulated financial instruments that have played such a central role in the current collapse...

Where was the press in all of this? Generally abdicating its imperative to shape the storyâto sift through disparate pieces of information and put them in their placesâand employing instead a false evenhandedness.

Let us explain.

Some articles merely summarized the report, avoiding the issue of significance entirely. But often reporters brought in opposing voices. That is standard, of course, and not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that reporters seemed at a loss over what weight to give opposition to the report. The result was that they gave it equal timeâor more. And so the GAO, which had spent two years making itself an expert on derivatives, became just one voice among many, only to be gradually shouted down by a persistent opposition.

In reality, the GAO was the authority here, and unlike many of its opponents, didnât have a horse in the race. Some opponents of the bill called the document politically biased in an effort to discredit it. But the problem with that accusation, which seems to have been aimed at Democrats, a few of whose members were at the forefront of the call for legislative action, is thatâwhile solutions may have differed across party linesâconcern over derivatives was not entirely limited to one party.

Thanks, conservative "New Class"!!

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink