Obama Faltering on Pledge to Restore the Role of Science

by Matthew Madia, 7/9/2010

One year after the White House was supposed to chart a new course for the role of scientists and the integrity of scientific information in government, federal employees and the public continue to await reform.

On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued a memo instructing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop within 120 days recommendations for ensuring scientific integrity in the federal government. Obama’s memo identified six principles OSTP was to follow in crafting the recommendations.

For a time, things appeared to be progressing swimmingly. OSTP invited public comment on the development of the recommendations, and even allowed people to comment on specific principles via the office’s blog.

But then the 120-day mark, July 9, 2009, passed without an announcement. The months continued to pass by and still, no recommendations on scientific integrity, let alone a plan for implementing those recommendations.

Now, on the one-year anniversary of the due date, criticism of the White House is increasing. The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the scientific integrity recommendations are still very much needed and points to the Obama administration’s handling of the BP oil disaster as evidence:

The muddled federal response to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates a lack of scientific transparency and candor in agency decision-making. Key examples include –
  • Without any scientific undergirding, EPA approved widespread application of oil dispersants deep underwater, despite the fact that these chemicals were designed for surface application. […]
  • The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has flip-flopped on release of scientific observations about the size and nature of swelling underwater oil plumes; 

Even amid such criticism, the White House remains silent. The White House’s failure to, at the very least, provide the public with a status update on the scientific integrity principles is unacceptable – particularly when the issue involves restoring and maintaining integrity in government decisionmaking.

Update: Dan Froomkin at the Huffington Post points out that OSTP Director John Holdren discussed the scientific integrity recommendations on OSTP’s blog June 18. Holdren wrote, “I am pleased to report here that the process, though slower than many (including myself) had hoped, has resulted in what I believe is a high-quality product that I anticipate finalizing and forwarding to the President in the next few weeks.”

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