Obama's Pledge to Science

March 10, 2009

President Obama on Monday made good on his campaign promise to lift the restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush on federal support for stem cell research. At the same time, the president issued a strong statement on the importance of protecting science from political interference -- and pledged that his administration's policies would be based on sound scientific advice and would not impose ideological tests on researchers.

"Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said in remarks at a White House ceremony announcing the changes. "It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

At one level, Obama's moves on Monday were no surprise. He pledged during the campaign to lift the stem cell limits and to respect science. Some observers had expected Obama to issue an executive order on stem cell research amid many others he signed in his first day in office. Instead, he linked his move to broader questions of science policy and orchestrated a full-scale media event, featuring 10 Nobel laureates, scientists who work or want to work with stem cells, politicians who have backed their quest to loosen federal limits on such research, and families with members affected by diseases that stem cell research may someday help to prevent or cure.

While noting the potential of stem cell research to help such families, Obama avoided predicting immediate cures. "I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No president can promise that," he said. "But I can promise that we will seek them -- actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground. Not just by opening up this new frontier of research today, but by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells."

The executive order Obama signed both lifts restrictions on federal support for stem cell research and orders the director of the National Institutes of Health to develop "provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on such research that is consistent with this order."

President Bush's limits on stem cell research didn't make the research illegal. But by severely restricting the use of federal funds, he effectively made it difficult for many studies to go forward and created logistical and paperwork distractions for researchers trying to conduct studies with federal and non-federal funds. Many scientists have worried about some researchers leaving the United States to conduct such work. But despite these complaints, and strong support for the research among politicians, Congress never found veto-proof majorities to reverse Bush.

Obama on Monday also signed a "memorandum" on Monday outlining steps the White House science office should take to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch." The memorandum calls for the creation of policies that will ensure that:

  • "The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity."
  • Each federal agency should "have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency."
  • "When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards."
  • With limited exceptions, "each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions."

The planned policies respond to a series of incidents in the Bush administration in which critics -- including some within federal agencies -- charged that sound scientific findings on climate change, endangered species or other topics were squelched.

Much of the reaction to the president's announcement was predictable, with university groups praising Obama and anti-abortion groups criticizing him. "For too long, our nation’s scientists have been shackled, denied vital federal funding, while our scientific competitors in other countries have performed groundbreaking research using human embryonic stem cells. Today, those shackles come off," said a statement from Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of Congressional and governmental affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, praised the "separation of politics and science."

The statement from National Right to Life, in contrast, opened this way: "In a White House ceremony today, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to allow federal funding of research that will require the killing of human embryos."

Beyond the expected pro-and-con statements, some scientific bloggers raised more subtle issues (generally praising the president) as they considered the language he used on Monday. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, noted in his blog that a portion of Obama's speech was "a great explanation of why we need to support basic research, even though it doesn't always pay off in predictable ways." The president's words that Mooney cited: "Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research -- from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit -- and from a government willing to support that work."

Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, blogged that she hoped Obama's move would put stem cell research "on a level playing field" with other promising approaches to research and remove the studies as "a hot button partisan wedge issue."

But while applauding the president, she cautioned that other supporters of the research should examine their actions over the years. "Researchers and research advocates (as well as bloggers and journalists) should take a sober look at the exaggeration and hype that have shaped the field over the past decade. They should re-commit themselves to responsible descriptions of their work's prospects, and refrain from exaggerating the likelihood and imminence of breakthroughs, treatments and cures," she wrote.

She added that since it is impossible to completely divorce science and politics, this is a good time to think about a more productive intersection of the two: "The stem cell wars have provided a great example of how not to conduct the politics of science. Our job now is to work out what a democratic politics of human biotechnology would look like."

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