Science in a post-Bush world

November 6, 2008 While many a scientist has picked apart a science-based policy of President Bush, the underlying issue that has sparked outrage from across the scientific community is the politicization of the discipline.

"The idea of putting ideology into decisions about science -- that has really denigrated the role of science," said Martin Chalfie, a Columbia University geneticist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in early October.

Along with 75 other Nobel Laureates, he endorsed now-President-elect Barack Obama in an open letter that also blasted the Bush administration.

"The government's scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations. As a result, our once dominant position in the scientific world has been shaken and our prosperity has been placed at risk. We have lost time critical for the development of new ways to provide energy, treat disease, reverse climate change, strengthen our security, and improve our economy," the letter said.

As Obama the senator becomes Obama the president, these scientists and throngs of others eagerly wait for him to gain the ground lost by his predecessor.

Overcoming Legacies of George W. Bush

"The past eight years of denial and delay are over," Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) President Kevin Knobloch said in a statement the morning after the election.

Particularly when it comes to policies related to global warming, the organization is looking for a fast and clean break from the approach of Bush that did not recognize man-made global warming, and obstructed international cooperation.

But that is hardly the only issue area that needs tending, scientists say.

In science-related agencies all over Washington, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Drug Administration, "scientists have been so patiently waiting for change. They've hung on and they've kept their heads down," said Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS.

In 2006, she led an effort by leading scientists that condemned political interference in science. In 2004, the UCS first issued a petition calling for the restoration of scientific integrity to federal policy making. Today, that document bears the names of more than 15,000 scientists, Grifo said.

On issues from A to Z, federal bureaucrats have undermined the scientific method and changed reports to make them politically or ideologically palatable, she said.

Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the UCS found that nearly two-thirds of the Environmental Protection Agency's scientists complained of recent political interference in their work.

Other examples of political interference, Grifo said, include amending the reports by biologists on endangered species and premature proclamations that the air quality at ground zero was safe.

To undo the damage that's been done, Obama's administration needs to promote transparency, protect government scientists and allow robust scientific input to guide federal decision-making, she said.

Susan F. Wood, the assistant FDA commissioner for women's health and director of the Office of Women's Health who resigned from her position in 2005, claiming political interference, is encouraged by Obama's commitment to strengthening the science base at government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

She hopes he underscores his commitment by appointing strong leaders and empowering them to rely on sound research.

"I have great hopes and expectations that this election demonstrated that not just the Obama campaign wants a return to good science on what works and [for] people with expertise and experience to be involved in those decisions," said Wood, who is now a research professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services. "It's an issue that resonates with the American people. … If there's a reason for using good science, it's really what can help government do its job properly."

Wanted: A Cabinet-Level Science Advisor

On several hot-button science issues, Obama has offered approaches and policy changes that scientists have applauded.

Recognizing the potential of stem cell research to treat Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and other disorders, he has said that he supports expanding such research and would lift the current administration's ban on federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

He has also said that there can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, he has proposed a market-based cap-and-trade system that sets a cap on the amount of a greenhouse gas that can be emitted.

Scientists, like Chalfie, are heartened by these proposals and expect Obama to follow through on them.

But they say that they're also watching out for one key decision: the creation of a cabinet-level science advisor.

"Look at what the [next] president does in terms of appointing a science advisor," said John Porter, chairman of Research! America, a nonprofit medical and health research advocacy alliance, and former Illinois congressman.

The sooner Obama appoints a science advisor, the better, Porter said.

Bush didn't appoint John H. Marburger as his science advisor until five months after taking office. And he didn't give the position a cabinet ranking.

Obama has said that he will appoint a chief technology officer, and the names of Google's Vint Cerf and Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos have been floated as possible contenders.

However, Porter emphasized, the high-level position should represent all the sciences.

In terms of research, Porter said, the new administration should ensure that the physical sciences keep up with the life sciences and funding levels should increase by 3 percent, above inflation, annually.

Obama's plan to double research funding in 10 years, is a "worthy goal," Porter said, adding that the economic climate could present a challenge.

Regardless, he said, he is hopeful that Obama's victory means the role of science is moving up.

"I think it's a new day for science in America," said Shawn Otto, chief executive officer of Science Debate 2008. "At last we're going to see a return to policy that's crafted on evidence instead of the other way around."

Obama has won supporters from the scientific community, he added, because he not only has demonstrated an ability to synthesize the known facts into policy, he also makes an effort to reach out to those who may disagree with him.

And that, Otto said, "is similar to the best traditions of the scientific process."

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