It breaks no new ground to observe that the Bush Administration’s record on respecting science and scientists is dismal. Three examples tell the tale:
Those and other examples have set off a long-running battle – eight years of running, to be precise – pitting scientists and advocates of science against White House and industry operatives. Defending the White House record through much of this was Science Advisor to the President John Marburger. It was an unenviable job – arguing against all reason that science has not been forced to bow down to politics during his boss’s tenure.
It was against that context, that President-elect Obama on Saturday announced the selection of John Holdren, a physicist and environmental policy professor at Harvard, to succeed Marburger, and Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from Oregon State University, to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They will join a group of appointees that includes Carol Browner, former Administrator of the Clinton EPA, now preparing to take on a job that has come to be known as the global warming czar, and, at the helm at the Department of Energy, Nobel physicist Steven Chu.
It’s an impressive roster, and it prompted a warm embrace in the pages of the New York Times this weekend from physicist Lewis M. Branscomb, who says that if the various nominations for science and technical positions are confirmed, “No president since the days of Benjamin Franklin will ever have been so well served in matters scientific.”
But another quote this weekend captured the sea change on science that the new Administration seems intent on creating, and it comes from the President-elect himself. “The truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources,” he said. “It's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It's about listening to what our scientists have to say. Even when it's inconvenient.”
Two things about the quote come to mind. First, a salute to the speechwriting. That last word, “inconvenient,” is a nice little echo of the title of Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It’s another in a series of impressively understated, but spot-on references that demonstrate his awareness of what has come before and tell the attentive listener exactly where Obama is headed. In his Grant Park speech on election night, for example, Obama gently sounded overtones of Dr. King. He referred to bending “the arc of history,” an echo of Dr. King’s famous line, itself borrowed from an abolitionist, that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And later, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.” Here again, Obama reached across the years to echo Dr. King’s words, uttered on the eve of his assassination, that, “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” After eight years of listening to presidential speeches in which the only real rhetorical drama was whether the leader of the free world would mangle the pronunciation of “nuclear,” or wrongly conjugate the verb “to be,” it’s nice to be reminded that a better season for speechmaking and speechwriting is on the way.
Second, and speaking of the outgoing President, read the Obama quote again and try to imagine George W. Bush keeping a straight face while saying it. Or try to imagine him offering in any context a defense of “free and open inquiry”? Or insisting that we needed to heed the advice of scientists when making policy?
At least as far as science and scientists go, the sea change can’t possibly get here soon enough.