Scientists Welcome Obama's Words
By NY TIMES
Added: Thu, 22 Jan 2009 00:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Ken for the link.
WASHINGTON — When he vowed in his Inaugural Address to ârestore science to its rightful place,â President Obama signaled an end to eight years of stark tension between science and government.
But many of the Bush administrationâs restrictions on science, like those governing stem cell research, will take time to be removed. And whether the Obama administration entirely reverses its predecessorâs strict controls over the governmentâs main scientific agencies remains to be seen.
Still, many scientists were exuberant. Staff members throughout the governmentâs scientific agencies held inaugural parties on Tuesday, and many reported being teary-eyed with joy.
âIf you look at the science world, you see a lot of happy faces,â said Frank Press, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter. âItâs not just getting money. Itâs his recognition of what science can do to bring this country back in an innovative way.â
On issues like stem cells, climate change, sex education and contraceptives, the Bush administration sought to tame and, in some cases, suppress the findings of many of the governmentâs scientific agencies. Besides discouraging scientific pronouncements that contradicted administration policies, officials insisted on tight control over even routine functions of key agencies.
In early 2004, more than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement claiming that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry.
The administration, it said, had âmisrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies.â
Just last month, the inspector general of the Interior Department determined that agency officials often interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species in danger of extinction.
These are the sort of wounds to scientific integrity that President Obama promised to heal in his Inaugural Address. The quickest-acting balm was the change of tone, delivered instantly in the speech.
âWe will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together,â he said. âWe will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technologyâs wonders to raise health careâs quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.â
It will take more time to do what officials in the Obama administrationâs transition teams have also promised, to reverse many of the policies scientists found objectionable. Next week, for instance, Mr. Obama is expected to announce an end to President Bushâs restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. But until new rules are written and formalized, laboratories that have received grants to investigate human embryonic stem cells will still have to confine research to lines created before Mr. Bushâs order in 2001.
âIn the area of stem cell policy, there was a fair degree of discussion and one might even say tension between the views of the agency and the Bush administration,â said Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acting director of the National Institutes of Health.
Even though the institutes are âprepared to respond quickly in how to implement that planned changeâ in stem cell policy, Dr. Kington acknowledged that the process was likely to take months.
Obama transition officials said that the new administration would also loosen the oversight that the Bush administration imposed over federal scientific agencies.
During the Bush administration, for instance, officials at the Food and Drug Administration could not issue even routine press releases without specific approval from supervisors at the Department of Health and Human Services. The result was a backlog that caused some announcements to be issued days after the events in question had already occurred. Some documents advising industry about how to follow some agency rules were never issued. Warning letters to pharmaceutical companies required additional review by agency lawyers, with the result that the number of such letters plunged.
William Hubbard, an associate F.D.A. commissioner who retired in 2005, said top Bush administration officials were so reflexively opposed to nearly all regulations that even when consumer groups, industry associations, scientists and drug agency officials all agreed that new rules were needed, top officials rejected them. With less stringent oversight, agency officials will most likely soon issue new rules to prevent contamination of eggs and produce and to tighten the oversight of imports, Mr. Hubbard said.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, former Director Julie L. Gerberding e-mailed to agency staff members a 1,600-word farewell on Wednesday afternoon defending her reorganization efforts, which many critics said vastly weakened the agency.
The Obama administration must decide whether unwinding Dr. Gerberdingâs administrative changes would cause more harm than good. Whatever the answer, the tumult of the multiyear reorganization will linger for a long time.
At the end of her e-mail message, Dr. Gerberding wrote that she had âone small requestâ: that staff members answer questions like âWhat part of your work accomplishments have inspired you the most?â In a reply copied to the entire staff, William H. Gimson, appointed by Dr. Gerberding to serve as the disease centerâs chief operating officer, wrote, âNicely done — I will answer your four questions.â
Analysts say the hardest changes will involve new financing priorities, especially in an age of spiraling deficits. But Kei Koizumi, a senior budget analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the stimulus bill going through Congress already bore hopeful signs of an Obama uplift, with new money slated for several science agencies.
âItâs an early indication,â Mr. Koizumi said, âthat the administration will go for more science funding in priority areas, even at a time of big deficits.â
But with expectations so high, and promises of progress in stubborn areas like alternative energy, Mr. Obama is bound to disappoint. For example, his promise to âwield technologyâs wonders to raise health careâs quality and lower its costsâ probably refers to the hopes that electronic medical records will somehow transform health care for the better, a hope expressed repeatedly by Bush administration officials but which many observers say may be overblown.
And even though Mr. Obama and his staff members have promised to use science to drive policy, scientists say they need to stay vigilant against efforts to allow politics to drive science.
âJust because we have well-meaning smart people in there now doesnât mean this canât happen again,â said Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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