Remember when President Obama vowed to "restore science to its rightful place?" His inaugural commitment, followed by executive orders, carried a message that methodologically sound science would trump politicized, ideological science.
It turns out, however, that the president's love affair with science isn't quite as clear-cut as it first seemed. Shortly after his inaugural pledge, Obama issued an Executive Order directing his chief science advisor to ensure that administration policies be based on sound science.
The EO called for the appointment of science advisers on credentials rather than political leanings and transparency about scientific decisions. “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions,” he said. One year later, Obama has yet to earn a passing grade on his scientific integrity pledge.
For one thing, Obama simply has not acted, a point driven home by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, a left-wing advocacy group that normally supports the administration. They point out that Obama last year called for a science strategy to be developed within 120 days of his inauguration.
Yet the Office of Science and Technology Policy has still not finalized a plan, which leads to uneven application among federal agencies.
Other shortcomings are apparent as well. Sunshine is indeed a disinfectant, allowing the public to identify ideologically-based “science” that has driven public policy decisions in the wrong direction.
But too many Freedom of Information Act requests for underlying scientific data used to formulate conclusions still languish too long in federal bureaucracies, effectively denying the public from being able to identify ideologically-driven “science.”
Foot-dragging on transparency is one of Obama’s greatest failures. He still has not established guidelines for promoting open communication among scientists, the media, policymakers and the public. Nor has it set a process to release all scientific papers early in the policy process, before they might be altered by political appointees.
Another troublesome development involves the scientific advisory panels that are vital in agencies, especially the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For example, an FDA scientific advisory panel was directed by Congress last year to make recommendations on the impact of menthol in cigarettes. It’s a question for which sound scientific studies would seem to be needed.
Yet, according to one Wall Street analyst, some members of the administration-appointed panel have already come out for a menthol ban. And yet others have what appears to be a clear conflict of interest as they have worked for pharmaceutical firms that sell smoking cessation products. Given these viewpoints and conflicts, it’s questionable whether the public could trust their analysis.
It’s a bit like having a Red Sox fan call balls and strikes at a Yankees baseball game
To “restore science to its proper place,” the administration still must convince the public that it has washed ideologically biased science from government and that appointees to scientific positions throughout government are dedicated to methodologically sound science, not to a pre-determined agenda.
It may be that the Obama administration never really had any intention of doing what it discussed with lofty rhetoric in its executive orders. If that is the case, substituting left-wing “science” under the ruse of “sound science” is no way to ensure that the public trusts the scientific process, and ultimately, for the Obama Administration, trust is the issue.
William Wilson is the President of Americans for Limited Government. He has spent his career working in political strategy and public affairs for various causes and organizations.