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Mind

How Hillary Would Restore Scientific Integrity to U.S. Policymaking

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyOctober 9, 2007 4:00 PM

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Disclaimer: This series of posts is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Rather, we are paying attention to Hillary because she has gone farther than any other candidate thus far in injecting science policy issues into the presidential race–and promising, if elected, to address the kinds of problems highlighted in The Republican War on Science and by The Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations. We sincerely hope other candidates of both parties will follow Hillary’s lead. And we already know, thanks to Bora’s intrepid reporting, that John Edwards shares many of her sentiments….

Last week, Hillary Clinton unveiled a detailed list of policy proposals for restoring the integrity of science to the federal government. Among other things, she promises to lift Bush’s stem cell “ban” (her word, not ours), restore the position of presidential science adviser to its former glory, and encourage Congress to reinstall something like the Office of Technology Assessment.

These are all good ideas–though the term “ban” is problematic–and in fact, probably deserve their own posts. For now, though, let’s consider some of the less high-profile policies that Hillary is endorsing as a group.

What’s actually most heartening to me is a rather bureaucratic-sounding proposal: Hillary says that if she’s president, all agency and department heads will have to file yearly reports detailing what they’ve done to ensure scientific integrity in their various fiefdoms. This might sound like just more paperwork, but actually, it’s a true sea change from what we saw under the Bush administration. First and most importantly, it acknowledges up front that there is a problem here (something that so far as I know, the current government has never admitted). Moreover, once such a mechanism has been set in place, scientific integrity will have to be on everybody’s radar, in every part of the federal government.

As an addition, and as I suggested in Harper’s a while back, I think it would be helpful to specifically name the presidential science adviser as point person for organizing this reporting process. It’s one thing to have all the agencies conducting their own investigations; it’s another to have someone in the White House culling it all together and laying, on the president’s desk, a kind of annual “scientific integrity” summary.

As additional policies, Hillary says she would ban–by executive order–political appointees from “altering or removing scientific conclusions in government publications without any legitimate basis for doing so.” Further, she would “prohibit unwarranted suppression of public statements by government scientists.” Both of which are fine and good; but on that latter point, it seems to me the real issue is the media policies that some agencies, like NOAA, have in place–media policies that might bring about tacit rather than overt suppression, discouraging government scientists from being entirely forthright with the media either because the policies are insidious or simply because they’re Byzantine and borderline impossible to understand. So on this point, I would hope that Hillary–or whoever turns out to be our president–would go further and look specifically into media policies at agencies.

Hillary also wants to protect the integrity of federal advisory committees, reverse Bush’s directive giving political appointees unprecedented control over the regulatory process (a big deal, as this would essentially be a ceding of power on the White House’s part back to the expert agencies), and strengthen whistleblower protections for government scientists. All to the good. Finally, she wants to ramp up the National Assessment process for studying climate change impacts to the United States, with a particular emphasis on how to mitigate them and adapt to them–an area where the Bush administration has almost maliciously dropped the ball.

All of these are great proposals–though I think they could benefit by some of the small additions listed above. Most important, I’m anxious to see the presidential science adviser brought in to administrate on some of this stuff and make sure that it really happens. If our next president has a trusted and excellent science adviser charged with these crucial tasks, we might really wind up with the best possible outcome: Well informed policymaking going forward again, and a federal government that talented young scientists actually want to come and work for.

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