Perspective on the Obama Directive on Science Utilization in Policy Making
Commentary on the Obama Memorandum by Lewis D. Eigen
In March of 2009, shortly after President Obama had assumed office, one of his early actions was to issue the following memorandum to members of the government. For many, the remarkable thing was not that he issued the memorandum, but that the conflict between science and politics had deteriorated to such a degree that he had to issue such a memorandum. For what the President directed, was what most Americans assumed had been ongoing policy and practice by the U. S. Government or for that matter, any modern government in the last two centuries. However, despite many periods of U. S. history where science and government clashed, there have been very few periods where politicians have deliberately tried to silence and/or neuter science as it may affect national policy. The George W. Bush administration carried the clash to extremes which have only historically been reached in the Cold War that pitted the Atomic Energy Commission against J. Robert Oppenheimer and most of the other nuclear scientists who developed the atomic bomb. Things had become so irrational and anti-scientific anbd anti-intellectual, that President Obama felt the need to issue this famous memorandum–something that many people believed should be assumed by all government officials of any political stripe without any specific direction.
The Obama memorandum follows annotated by Dr. Lewis Eigen who adds perspective in retrospect to the president’s directive. The annotations are in purple.
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 examples that the President gave were those situations and areas where the public criticism and press coverage had been the greatest. However the abuses were by no means limited to those specific areas. Less publicized abuses were extant in almost every major agency of the government and many of the minor ones. LDE
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.
The transgressions prohibited by this paragraph were all documented behavior of the previous Bush Administration. Each one was not unique to the previous administration but had occurred occasionally in the history of both political parties. However, no administration in history had used these all these tactics or employed them to the extreme extent that the George W. Bush Administration did. LDE
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.
(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;
This is critical but also requires that the Committee or Agency disclose not only its findings or decisions but the scientific logic and studies that they relied upon. Agencies have often been reluctant to do that for if the did, parties could go to court and obtain a finding that the decision was not rationally based on the research and data. But if the give no reasoning, a judge can never reach such a finding of capricious and arbitrary action. In my experience with government, the attorneys virtually always counsel against making public the reasoning for any decision. This excellent requirement will take a while and goes against the instinct of ever experienced government hand and especially the lawyers. LDE
(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.
While the President was well-intentioned here, one only has to look at the history of whistleblowers over the last several decades under different administration. Those who can keep their jobs usually are assigned to a “Siberia” of the agency, have their budgets cut, lose their assistants and are isolated in limbo. There will not likely be any progress in protecting whistleblowers until there is an independent agency that most review all proposed personnel actions affecting the whistleblower, BEFORE they are implemented. LDE
Some Related References
An excellent Washington Post article entitled “Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics” is a contemporaneous account of the issuance of the memorandum. The link also includes a video of the president’s public statement relating to the problem. Click Here.
“The action by the president today will, in effect, allow scientists to create their own guidelines without proper moral restraints,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said. Perkins and his organization were one of the examples of non-scientific, ideological groups which turned their political access in the George W. Bush administration into improper influence of the scientific deliberations of the government. However, Perkins’ point of view was held by many in that administration. In effect, they honestly believe that scientists are not to be trusted to decide scientific matters precisely because they may not have the “proper moral constraints.” Perkins statement is an excellent and forthrightly stated illustration of the other side of the political issue. There are many religious and ethical individuals and organizations who also are concerned about science and morality, but they do not see why scientists, more so than other professional Americans have to have “moral restraints”. What about lawyers, soldiers, accountants, artists, writers, nurses, or others? And they also find the determination of the “proper” moral constraints problematic. Whose morality is “proper”? Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jews, atheists, Ethical Culturalists, secular humanists? Despite the difficulties, serious thinkers about this issue should study the other point of view as they state it. Click Here For the Family Research Council Issues Website.