Obama: White House will no longer ignore established science

A memorandum published by the White House this morning made good on a campaign promise by President Obama to discontinue the Oval Office practice of disregarding or even suppressing certain scientific and technological information when crafting executive policy.

"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," reads the President's memorandum this morning. "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."

The memorandum goes on to charge the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to draft a set of recommendations within the next four months for how the Executive Branch can ensure the integrity of scientific information and the scientific process, during debates and deliberations over drafting executive policy.

Of course, it would help if there were such a director in place. That director had been expected to be Prof. John Holdren, the former director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and who presently serves as the prestigious Director of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

But in an ironic twist that could only happen in Washington, as first reported last week by the Washington Post, Prof. Holdren's confirmation process in Congress has been intentionally held up for reasons having zero to do with science or even with Prof. Holdren. In an effort to get the President's attention on legislation related to Cuba, Sen. John Menendez (D - N.J.) has blocked the schedule for confirmation proceedings for Holdren, as well as Mr. Obama's nominee to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The holdup may hamper, but not completely postpone, the White House's effort to re-institute measures that mandate that federal agencies must observe and respect scientific principles when dealing with matters related to science, the environment, and social policy.

The President's order comes in response to years of criticism of the previous administration's policy with regard to observing scientific evidence -- or more specifically, in finding new ways not to do so. After an OSTP report in 2000, during the final months of the Clinton administration, pointed out the near-term dangers of climate change, President Bush in 2002 directed the creation of an inter-agency Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which would produce the climate change survey reports from then on, instead of the OSTP.

But no such report was published -- a fact which the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2005 letter to key senators (PDF available here) was contrary to law. Though the GAO letter did not state so explicitly, the evidence was there that the CCSP had been created with the express purpose of not producing a report. That prompted a group of coalition advocacy groups to file suit against President Bush in late 2008.

As those groups were preparing to file suit last August, however, Mr. Bush instituted a pre-emptive strike of sorts, directing the Interior Dept. not to observe US Fish & Wildlife Service surveys when making decisions about whether public works projects might encumber endangered species.

That directive appeared to be a defensive response to a 2007 discovery by the Interior Dept.'s Inspector-General's office (PDF available here) that a Bush administration appointee to Fish & Wildlife tampered with the findings of endangered species reports. The Bush directive let that appointee off the hook by saying such findings weren't necessary anyway.

That directive was nullified one week ago by President Obama, in a move that was applauded by environmental law firm Earthjustice, which had participated in a suit to get the directive overruled: "President Obama's directive sends a loud and clear signal that the former administration's political manipulation of science will no longer be tolerated." Legislation being considered by Congress, however, could re-instate the Bush order.

But instituting Obama's directive requires there to be a Director of OSTP in place, which may only take place now after some decision is made regarding US policy toward Cuba.

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