President-elect Obama has announced that he will make the following nominations to important science-related offices:
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
Administrator, Nationol Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Department of Commerce
The announcement on the Transition Office’s website contains the following text:
Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.
Allegations that science has been politicized by one side or the other are hardy perennials. Its cause can be traced to several phenomena:
- Science is widely perceived by the public to be free of political interests. This makes it an atractive vessel for the enactment of policies that have frank political purposes.
- The authority to make public policy decisions is vested in Congress, or if Congress has so delegated, to the president or Executive branch officers under the authority and responsible to the president. On occasion, some of these individuals may be scientists, but that is irrelevant to the source of their authority.
- To avoid accountability, decision makers often prefer to disguise policy decisions as founded on (or dictated by) science. Scientists often interpret this abdication of responsibility as an invitation to make policy decisions on their behalf.
- Scientists often like to make policy decision rather than simply “search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”
It is safe to predict that during the Obama administration, as during the Bush administration and its predecessors, those who disagree with the administration’s policy decisions will allege that science has been politicized.
An early test will arise when the Administration is tested on its commitment to information quality — particularly, the principle of objectivity. This principle has considerable advantages if science is to be protected from political interference.