President Obama Begins to Reverse Bush Era Political Interference in Science

Today was a great day for science in the Executive Branch. Firstly, President Barack Obama (finally!) lifted George W. Bush's August 2001 restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research in an executive order entitled "Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells":

The purpose of this order is to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry, to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research, and in so doing to enhance the contribution of America's scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humankind.

In place of the Bush era restrictions, which were based primarily on a combination of enforcing religious beliefs and political pandering, we're now going to have a set of guidelines put together by a scientific agency:

Within 120 days from the date of this order, the Secretary [of Health and Human Services], through the Director of NIH, shall review existing NIH guidance and other widely recognized guidelines on human stem cell research, including provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on such research that is consistent with this order. The Secretary, through NIH, shall review and update such guidance periodically, as appropriate.

Science policy formulated by actual scientists? Now that's a novel concept!

In addition to this executive order, President Obama also released a memo emphasizing his administration's commitment to scientific integrity and preventing political interference in science. Needless to say, this is about a 180 degree turnaround from the days of the Bush Administration:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

By this memorandum, I assign to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (Director) the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes. The Director shall confer, as appropriate, with the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President (collectively, the "agencies"), and recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.

Like his stem cell order, this memo gives the director 120 days to come up with a specific set of recommendations to reverse the abhorrent overly politicized anti-science climate that has existed in the Executive Branch for the last 8 years. For more, check out the White House's fact sheet, President Obama's remarks, and a video of his remarks.

Today serves as a shining example of why so many prominent scientists supported Obama during his presidential campaign. He still has plenty of much more vexing scientific problems in need of his attention (not the least of which is working with Congress to develop a plan for stable and sustainable increases in the NIH budget), but he's off to a great start.

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I will find it interesting whether science is going to be able to make any serious progress during the next 3 years. By serious progress I mean that the general public would be aware of. This may help future political parties keep the ban off of stem cell research.