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Scientists Deflated by Obama's Policy Decisions

After swooning over promises that science would always trump politics in his administration, some observers are troubled by President Obama’s decisions on smog and contraception.
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Scientists and their advocates always come back to the Inauguration Speech. It was a high point in the enthusiasm Barack Obama carried into office, riding the endorsements of dozens of Nobel laureates who during the 2008 election had called for a new era in Washington where scientific expertise would be deferred to, not dismissed. Obama seemed to be speaking directly to all of these people the day he was sworn into office nearly three years ago.

“I admit to being a little giddy when I heard those words — ‘restore science to its rightful place’ — in his inauguration speech,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Guilty as charged.”

Of course, the problem with saying such a thing — as a politician — is that it gives people something to come back to, a measuring stick, when things don’t seem to be going according to expectations. And that early Obama pledge stood in particularly stark contrast to the news last week that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius planned to override scientists at the FDA — and their years of deliberation — in denying over-the-counter access to the emergency contraceptive “Plan B” for women and girls of all ages.

Obama’s own defense of the decision rested on something less than scientific reasoning.

“As the father of two daughters,” he said, “I think it’s important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.”

In the annals of presidential proclamations on scientific integrity, “as the father of two daughters” is a far cry from “restoring science to its right place” in federal policymaking.

“I’m not sure any of us really knew what to expect,” Grifo said, looking back on the inauguration. “I think this has been a giant, broad remaking of agencies in one respect, and I think we were pretty naïve to think that that was going to happen really quickly.”

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Grifo cheers several agencies, such as the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, for their serious attempts to respond to White House science adviser John Holdren’s call for updated scientific integrity policies. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its final policy and handbook, a promising development largely overshadowed by the Plan B news. Among the highlights is the agency’s media policy, NOAA scientists are now permitted to talk directly to the media — in other words, the public — about their research findings, without first seeking permission or deferring to agency spokespeople. This was a key demand of scientific integrity advocates, who feared that the work of government scientists was sometimes muzzled or mediated for political reasons during the Bush administration.

Ironically, though, some of EPA’s most high-profile work this year — leading to recommendations for stricter national ozone standards — was also dismissed by the White House. A devastating account of the decision in TheNew York Times last month came with this foreboding headline: “Re-election strategy is tied to a shift on smog.”

“Both [were] crushing disappointments,” Grifo said of the White House’s ozone and Plan B decisions. “They’re crushing issues that are like an instant replay of the last administration — for no good reason, except politics. And that’s just wrong.”

Still, she doesn’t see the results as uniformly bleak.

“The positive mitigating factor in these, in terms of crushing scientists, is that the leaders of [the EPA and the FDA] have been on the side of science. That’s a big achievement. We didn’t have that last time.”

Both EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg fought for policies that were based on agency scientific findings. “In these cases [where the administration overruled them], the White House did not manipulate the science; they just chose to overrule it,” Grifo said. “They didn’t change the data. That’s something to cheer about, because they certainly could have changed the data.”

All of this leaves the administration with a mixed record on scientific integrity heading into the next election.

As national elections draw closer, will science matter less in government policymaking? Grifo predicts a perverse correlation (and perhaps one for a scientist to measure): disappointments similar to Plan B will accumulate as we get closer to next fall. The thought discourages her as she eyes several more major decisions expected out of the EPA in the coming year.

And while it will be interesting to see if scientists rally to Obama’s side in the same way they did in 2008, they’re unlikely to be inspired by his Republican opponents — among whom climate denlialism has become a litmus test.

“My hope is that, in fact, if we have a next Obama administration, that we see an improvement,” Grifo said. “That we go back to that idealism. I wonder what that inaugural speech is going to sound like: ‘This time, we really are going to restore science to its rightful place. Really. We really are.’”

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