Perspective on the Obama Directive on Science Utilization in Policy Making

November 4, 2009 at 1:19 AM Leave a comment

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.


The Memo


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 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.

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;
The abuse here is a difficult one to police for any administration.  Our science establishment is so extensive that in major areas there are thousands if not tens of thousands of scientists working in a particular field.  It is not very hard for an appointing official to find one of the possibly very few scientists who hold an ideological point of view corresponding to that of the administration.  However, many of these “friendly appointees” are not among the leading scientists in their field.  They tend to come from small colleges rather than large research universities; they have few publications in scientifically refereed journals. (In some cases their only writings in the field are published by non scientific organizations which have ideological positions in the area.)  They are often members of scientific organizations, but any scientist who pays his dues may join these; they are almost never elected as officer or fellows of these institutions.  Typically, they have not been awarded many if any research grants by peer reviewed processes.  There is no way to make rules about such a situation that are enforceable since subjective judgment is always required.  To keep appointing officials honest on this requirement, the intellectual and moral integrity of those appointed to the appointing position is critical, and much greater public  scrutiny of the background of every scientific appointee is going to be necessary.  LDE

(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

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.
The enforcement will thus depend on the integrity and skill of the current administration officials, but the President did not go so far as to give ANYONE outside of the government the right to enforce the directives herein.  Hopefully, such a mechanism will not be needed and the appointees of both parties can be relied on in the future.  If one judges by the history of the last century, that is not an unreasonable expectation.  However, if the pattern from 2000 to 2008 is the future norm, the memo will have been a well-intentioned, but feeble effort.  I would bet on the former as long as the public and the scientific community, but I may be too much of an optimist  LDE

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

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.

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