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Restoring Scientific Integrity


President Barack Obama signs an executive order on stem cells and a presidential memorandum on scientific integrity.

President Barack Obama’s decision last month to "guarantee scientific integrity" in federal policy making needs to be applauded and must be supported by everyone. After many years of political interference by the previous administration, the current policy pursued by the Obama administration will restore science its due place in policy making, especially with regards to issues as varied as climate change, national security, protection of endangered species and children’s health.

Independent and unbiased scientific assessments are a crucial ingredient in good policy and should never be adjusted to fit a predetermined policy decision. Political interference in science has been weakening our nation’s ability to respond to the complex challenges we face. Because policy makers depend on impartial research to make informed decisions, we need to mobilize scientists and citizens alike to push for reforms that will enable our leaders to fully protect our health, safety, and environment.

However, during the past decade, science was made to be subservient to political agenda. It was very disheartening that the Bush administration used scientific research to enhance its own agenda. Bush was often accused of trying to shade or even suppress the findings of government scientists on climate change, sex education, contraceptives and other issues, as well as stem cells.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Survey, Statistics & Methodology at Iowa State University reported last summer of political interference in their work, significant barriers to the free communication of scientific results, and concerns about the agency’s effectiveness. They contended that political pressure on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came from the White House, EPA political appointees, and external commercial interests. A majority of scientists held the view that EPA political appointees were inappropriately involved in scientific decisions. In early 2004, more than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement claiming that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry. The administration, it said, had "misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies.” And it was no surprise to many when the inspector general of the Interior Department determined that agency officials often interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species in danger of extinction.

On climate change, environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. The Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming. "The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific "backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that "scientists differ” on the issue. We have seen a sea change, especially since the dawn of 2009 in the federal policy towards science. Unlike when EPA was under siege during the Bush administration, the Obama administration has given EPA the simple yet profound charge "to protect human health and the environment.” Ensuring a cleaner environment for future generations has been the hallmark of this administration. "Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry,” Obama said and signed an executive order seeking to insulate scientific advisors from political interference. Scientific research is being carried out by human beings. They must be guided by urge to enhance science and human development. Accordingly, President Obama has asked federal agencies to pick science advisers based on expertise, not political ideology, and will offer whistle-blower protections to employees who expose the misuse or suppression of scientific information. He said, ‘we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.’ Echoing her leader’s sentiments, Lisa P. Jackson, chosen to head the Environmental Protection Agency, said at her confirmation hearing that her first task would be to restore scientific and legal integrity to an agency battered by charges of political interference and coziness with industry. "Science must be the backbone of what E.P.A. does,” Ms. Jackson said in her opening statement to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

She said that the new administration’s environmental priorities would be curbing global warming, reducing air pollution, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, regulating toxic chemicals and protecting water quality.

In the midst of the economic downturn, it’s hard and unpopular to work towards "costly” clean energy. However, we must understand that investing in cleaner and natural sources of energy and containing global warming could boost the economy by providing employment to millions. In the past two decades the United States undertook to lead the research and action in the booming of the Information Technology, and it ensured its dominance in the IT sector. Similarly, it needs to lead the research and implementation of policies and programs for a greener and healthy planet, and not buckling under pressure from lobbyists as well as vested political and industrial leaders. Obama had said in his inaugural address that he intended to "restore science to its rightful place," and researchers said he had already made good on that promise by naming Nobel laureates like Dr. Varmus and Steven Chu, the energy secretary, to advise him. Through these pronouncements and actions, Obama is suggesting to the world that science rather than ideology will be the foundation for his decision making. What we are seeing now is both a response to the last eight years of Bush hijacking science, and a genuine reflection, realization and enthusiasm of President Obama for restoring science its rightful place. And that’s what is giving us and future generations hope of a better world.

BY AJAY GHOSH

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