Monday was a good day for our nation’s science policy. At the same time he announced that the federal government will abandon misguided restrictions on stem cell research, President Obama unveiled an effort to promote a sea change in the way political appointees will treat the science that informs so many federal policies.
In a memorandum to department heads across the government, President Obama announced that John Holdren, the soon-to-be-confirmed Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), will develop a plan to achieve a goal of “ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes.”
The memorandum hints at some very encouraging ideas that reflect a significant change in attitude from the Bush Administration. For starters, President Obama writes that “science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration.” President Bush always talked about the importance of science, but it was always “sound science,” which, roughly translated, meant “administration-approved science.” Hopefully President Obama's focus on the scientific process means that he will let evolving knowledge guide his policy choices, rather than unwavering ideology.
The other exciting prospect outlined in President Obama’s memo is his request that each agency create “procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.” Several Inspectors General and congressional committees have done excellent work investigating incidences of scientific misconduct in recent years, but this ad-hoc approach to oversight could use improvement. A well-designed independent review system that enlists scientists who understand the inherent vagaries of cutting-edge research might provide the systemic accountability mechanism that we need.
President Obama gave Holdren and his colleagues at OSTP 120 days to develop a roadmap for improving scientific integrity in the federal government. Although the memo doesn’t specifically call for it, Holdren would make good use of that short timeframe by requesting public comment on this important document. After the shenanigans of the last administration, we have plenty of ideas.