Obama, Scientific Integrity, and the State of the Union

With the State of the Union coming up, I’ve been wondering whether, or how, President Obama might address the Plan B fiasco I blogged about here. After all, Obama has addressed science issues in his previous State of the Union addresses. And, in his inaugural address, he pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” More importantly, he entered office promising the most transparent administration in history and vowing that, unlike previous administrations, he and his appointees would “not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions” for political gain. But those promises were forgotten or ignored as soon as they were made.

From Obama’s March 2009 decision to fund only politically favorable types of human embryo research to his administration’s Plan B birth control decision last month, he has shown that he is every bit as willing to politicize science when it’s expedient as earlier presidents have been. The highly politicized December 7 decision by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to over-ride a decision by Food and Drug Administration scientists to approve the Plan B emergency contraceptive for over-the-counter use has gotten plenty of attention. But for science policy experts, that case of politicized science came as no surprise given the administration’s willingness to subvert the advice of scientific experts on any number of critical issues.

Just to give a couple of examples: White House Energy Czar Carol Browner improperly altered a scientific report on oil spill remediation in order to support a ban on off-shore drilling. Then there was the administration’s rejection of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste depository as Nuclear Regulatory Commission scientists accused senior administration officials of politicizing their work. And there are scores of other cases — ranging from the significant to the petty — in which the Obama Administration has chosen to subvert scientific integrity for political gain.

According to a July 2010 investigation by the Los Angeles Times, one organization that represents scientific whistleblowers has been “getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate [it was] during the Bush administration.” And because the Obama administration routinely ignores public disclosure requirements and Freedom Of Information Act requests, who knows how many more cases of politicization have not yet been revealed?

I would rather like to see the President explain how to square this behavior with his public boasting. So, here’s a challenge. Obama should take the opportunity at this State of the Union Address to own up to his presidency’s failings on scientific integrity, and re-commit his administration to reject the politicization of science. And this time, let us all hope he means it.