Obama’s Science Record

Nature recently published a lengthy article in their news section that looks at how well President Obama kept his promise to “value science” in his administration.  The opinion seems to be that, for the most part, he lived up to his word.  Over four years, I’ve forgotten what a big deal most of his science policy nominees were and how much respect they garnered from colleagues in his field.  And I have no way of comparing it to George W. Bush’s administration, but I also remember hearing about the big push by the incoming Obama administration to hire researchers for various executive appointments.  One of my science professors freshman year mentioned how faculty at our university had gotten several invitations to apply for executive agencies.  

And his rock star science team seems to have done well, mostly.  A common complaint about Bush-era science agencies was that the White House would “muzzle” researchers when their data or policy suggestions contrasted with the administration’s goals.  One of Obama’s promises was to require federal agencies to develop “scientific integrity” policies that would ensure scientists could state their own views and publish their own data without political interference.  It took a bit longer than expected to create all these policies, but now they’re nearly all in place.

Of course, any mention of the integrity policies would be incomplete without mentioning the two big controversies on this end.  During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, US Geological Survey employees complained that the Obama administration pressured them to underestimate the amount of oil in the Gulf.  And an initial estimate from NOAA was criticized for being done by someone with no experience in the area and using poor techniques.

And at the end of last year, there was some large intramural fighting in the administration.  The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research recommended that the morning-after pill, Plan B, be made available to all girls “over the counter”.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, overruled that decision and kept the current policy requiring a prescription for girls under 17 in place.  In a memo, Sebelius claimed that there is not enough evidence showing that the “youngest girls of reproductive age” could safely use Plan B on their own.  The bigger deal was the follow-up, though.  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg fought back in her public statement said that she agreed with the Center’s review.

There’s also lots of other things that happened over the last four years:  science spending in the stimulus, NASA, various proposals to open up new land to resource extraction and also new regulations, the development of ARPA-E, and the list goes on.  But the Nature piece already does a good job, and I don’t see a need to rehash everything they say.  So go check it out.