15 June 2010

Obama's War on Science

There is no "war on science." There was not a Republican war on science under the Bush Administration and there is not a Democratic war on science under the Obama Administration. What every administration has are efforts to cherrypick and massage evidence in support of their political preferences and sometimes these efforts are judged to go too far. The Bush Administration was particularly ham-handed in its handling of expertise, to be sure. The Obama Administration seems to be having its own problems as well.

Consider how the Obama Administration handled scientific advice that it solicited from the National Academy of Engineering (part of the NAS), as reported by the WSJ.

In the wake of the oil spill, President Obama asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to produce a report on new drilling safety recommendations. Then on May 27 Mr. Obama announced a six-month deep water drilling ban, justifying it on the basis of Mr. Salazar's report, a top recommendation of which was the moratorium. To lend an air of technical authority, the report noted: "The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering."

That would be false, sir. In a scathing statement this week, the seven experts explained that the report draft they had reviewed did not include a six-month drilling moratorium. That was added only after they signed off.
Seven authors of the NAE report wrote the following in a letter complaining that their advice had been altered after it had been provided (pdf, emphasis in original):
A group of those named in the Secretary of Interior’s Report, “INCREASED SAFETY MEASURES FOR ENERGY DEVELOPMENT ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF” dated May 27, 2010 are concerned that our names are connected with the moratorium as proposed in the executive summary of that report. There is an implication that we have somehow agreed to or “peer reviewed” the main recommendation of that report. This is not the case.

As outlined in the attached document [pdf], we believe the report itself is very well done and includes some important recommendations which we support. However, the scope of the moratorium on drilling which is in the executive summary differs in important ways from the recommendation in the draft which we reviewed. We believe the report does not justify the moratorium as written and that the moratorium as changed will not contribute measurably to increased safety and will have immediate and long term economic effects. Indeed an argument can be made that the changes made in the wording are counterproductive to long term safety.

The Secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions.
Of course politicians should be responsible for decision making and advisors for advice, but politicians should not change advice to fit more comfortably with their preferred course of action. Such behavior would represent a highly pathological politicization of science.

If you are opposed to the political agenda of the administration then you probably will be less forgiving about such transgressions than someone who supports that political agenda. Because of these political dynamics it can be hard to maintain a focus on issues of scientific integrity.

That the Obama Administration has been caught out politicizing science is not a surprise. As I have often said, such behavior is in the DNA of political behavior. However, the only references to the episode that I can find in the media and the blogosphere (and I have not made a comprehensive search, so please add references in the comments) are from the WSJ and Fox News and also on some conservative blogs.

If the politicization of science is only something that your political opponents engage in, then it is easy to see how issues of scientific integrity easily get lost. But scientific integrity should be a nonpartisan issue, shouldn't it?