Obama Orders Return to Scientific Integrity in Policymaking

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Obama Signs Science Memorandum

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U.S. President Barack Obama signed a memorandum yesterday ordering the return of scientific integrity to policymaking.

Think about that for a minute.

What does that say about our government’s behavior for the past eight years?

In the memorandum, the president orders the new director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to ensure that anyone hired for a science or technology role in the executive branch be chosen based on their scientific expertise, not their ideological beliefs. He also orders that all agencies ensure that they use scientific and technological information that has been carefully reviewed for accuracy.

Those basic tenants of sound policy should go without saying, yet for years, they have been violated in the name of politics. Science in general was treated with disdain by the Bush administration, and climate science in particular was a frequent target. 

One of the most notorious offenders was former oil industry lobbyist Philip A. Cooney, a non-scientist who the Bush Administration hired as chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney turned the office’s name into a joke by editing scientific reports to downplay connections between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. As a New York Times investigation discovered, “uncertainties” became “significant and fundamental uncertainties” after Cooney had his way with the reports.

In another case, officials with the Office of Science and Technology Policy edited testimony given in 2007 by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding. Much of what the officials cut were her comments about the potential impact of climate change on Americans.

To reboot that troubled bureaucracy, President Obama ordered the office’s new director to come up with a strategy to ensure the highest level of integrity in the executive branch’s dealings with scientific and technological issues. 

As the president said in signing the memorandum,

"Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology."

The president also issued a separate memorandum yesterday ordering all senior government officials to check with the U.S. attorney general before relying on any of former President Bush’s signing statements. Bush often issued signing statements to manipulate legislation he disagreed with, such as the congressional ban on torture.

Obama is still finding political sand traps as he tries to clean up the federal landscape. His choice to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy is Harvard Physicist John Holdren, however Holdren’s confirmation has been held up for apparently unrelated political reasons by a few members of Congress.

Here’s the Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity. It’s how an intelligent government operates.


SUBJECT: Scientific Integrity

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

By this memorandum, I assign to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (Director) the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes. The Director shall confer, as appropriate, with the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President (collectively, the "agencies"), and recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.

Specifically, I direct the following:

1. Within 120 days from the date of this memorandum, the Director shall develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, based on the following principles:

(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate’s knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;

(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;

(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards;

(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;

(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised; and

(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares.

2. Each agency shall make available any and all information deemed by the Director to be necessary to inform the Director in making recommendations to the President as requested by this memorandum. Each agency shall coordinate with the Director in the development of any interim procedures deemed necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific decisionmaking pending the Director’s recommendations called for by this memorandum.

3. (a) Executive departments and agencies shall carry out the provisions of this memorandum to the extent permitted by law and consistent with their statutory and regulatory authorities and their enforcement mechanisms.

(b) Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) authority granted by law to an executive department, agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity, by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

4. The Director is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.


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