Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Much Has Changed for Science under Obama?

President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters who focus on foreign policy or the economy by continuing many of the practices of the Bush administration with which he had promised to break.  Science policy has seemed like an obvious exception, in which the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, both respects science and is willing to pay for it.  For example, in a keynote address to the European Research Council last year, AAAS president Alan Leshner claimed that American science "is back," and that the US will again be a reliable research partner for the rest of the world.

But there have been warning signs as well, including mixed signals on renewable energy research (as in boosting nuclear and offshore drilling at the same time).  In the past several days, two stories have claimed that scientific data and argument remain at the mercy of politics and message control.  A piece at the Huffington Post notes that the new rules to promote "scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" are a year late, and that a George Washington University survey found that "most government scientists interviewed did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration." 

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times ran a long article called "Scientists Expected the Obama Administration to be Friendler."  It claimed that many "Scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out," and offered a number of examples.

The conflict between the open circulation of data and message control has been on parade for weeks in the BP gulf oil disaster.  UC Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer, a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group, has reported on the difficulty his group has had getting access from BP to reliable data on oil flow, and on the contrast between BP's repeatedly inaccurate claims and their own findings. 

Open access is crucial for both the assessment of social impacts and the advancement of research itself.  Since the Obama administration has suffered enormous damage from its association with the BP spill, it should step up with rules protecting scientific integrity and enforce a much higher standard for access than we have seen in recent years.

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