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New experiment in the White House

How will science fare under Obama?

Bill Hanage 23 November 2008

Fresh perspective: It's early days, but Obama's science acceptance shows promise

At the apex of the US government under Bush, reality itself was considered to be optional

I have just returned from a meeting in the US, where an unsurprising leitmotif of discussion was what the next occupant of the White House might mean for science. In general, and as documented elsewhere, Republican administrations (and to an extent Democrats) have allowed the balance of scientific evidence and its interpretation to be seriously distorted for political gain.

The playbook is to emphasize uncertainty. In a 2003 memo to Republican candidates on how to handle climate change, pollster Frank Luntz was blunt:

[S]hould the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…” (his italics)

Similar tactics have been used to limit regulation of polluters, and to argue that Intelligent Design should be taught in biology class because of ‘the controversy’. One of the original and most effective uses of the strategy was the attempt by Big Tobacco to obscure the health risks of smoking. Naturally, the controversy in almost all such cases is political rather than scientific. The Bush administration have been repeat offenders in this regard. Indeed, they went further, culminating in the notorious views documented by Ron Suskind, which suggested that at the apex of the US government under Bush, reality itself was considered to be optional. Given that science is the objective study of reality, this is a blow.

There is every reason to believe that President Elect Barack Obama will be different. In the first place, he is the most academically inclined president in recent history – it is easy to overlook how remarkable this is, given the historical suspicion of the US electorate toward ‘elites’. His decision-making, so far as we know, is characterized by extensive consultations and he actively encourages his staff to argue their corner rather than agree with him (even if he then goes on and ignores them). In one clear break from the past, Obama has promised that his science adviser will have the official status of an “assistant to the President”, which Bush felt was not necessary for his adviser John Marburger. This is all good news, if a little cosmetic.

We do have the benefit of a set of responses given during the campaign by Obama (or someone on his team) to a set of questions in Nature magazine. The majority are campaign-trail wish-wash, and it remains to be seen how many will end up being implemented (although it should be noted that McCain did not bother to respond at all). However, the tenor of comments such as “I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees” might be taken as a reason to be cheerful.

This is important, because recent research has suggested that the Bush administration’s ideological attitude to scientific evidence has had a trickledown effect on the sort of science which gets conducted in the first place, and even driven some scientists out of relatively contentious fields such as sexual health. This deplorable state of affairs can be almost entirely traced to a ‘faith-based’ stance on numerous issues. One of the many problems with such an approach is that it takes no account of the fact that multiple faith-derived attitudes are possible. Certain of the faithful have a terrible tendency to feel that their own sincerely held beliefs are so important that they can trump those of others. Given this, Obama’s pledge to not repeal but even expand Bush's faith-based initiatives makes many scientists and secularists wary. However, it should be noted that Obama’s plan specifically bars religious groups receiving federal funding from taking religious belief into account when hiring. In drawing such a line, it fits squarely into the separation of church and state, the distinctly American bargain by which it is hoped that guaranteeing religious freedom will create a multiplicity of faiths, and prevent the ascendance of any particular confession which could exert itself to the detriment of others.

In this context, Obama can sound rather like Thomas Jefferson (reviled in his day as an atheist) and his response to the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools also sounds distinctly Jeffersonian: “I do not believe it is helpful to our students to cloud discussions of science with non-scientific theories like intelligent design that are not subject to experimental scrutiny.” This is, I think, as clear a rebuke as can be expected, and reasserts the President Elect’s regard for evidence.

But while all this is good, the truth is that the new administration has more pressing matters in front of it. Even though Obama’s transitional team has stated that, for instance, one of his first actions will be to assert his support for stem cell research, there is the small matter of the collapsing world economy to contend with. This will probably be the biggest influence on the next four years, and it will mean less money is available for science. Worse, Obama will have to contend with numerous needy Democrats in Congress who will have their eye on whatever spare money is available. We should count anything more than warm words and a White House which, when faced with unpalatable evidence, does not block its ears and sing “la la la I can’t hear you”, as a bonus.

But hey, it could be worse.