Mar 10 2009
Obama signed an executive order yesterday lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. No surprise there – it was highly anticipated that he would remove Bush’s ban on federal funding for such research.
Obama, however, decided to sweeten the deal by adding a memorandum regarding science in general. He wants to shield the scientific process from ideological intrusion. This is a very good thing – a principle with which I heartily agree.
Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is quoted as saying:
“We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs,” Varmus said. “This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”
Obama and his advisors have shown that they understand science only works when it is free from outside influence designed to bias the findings or operation of science. If science is subjugated to ideology or politics, it ceases to be science.
So now we know that the Obama administration will talk the talk of science – that’s good. But the real tests are yet to come. It remains to be seen if he will walk the walk.
It is one thing to decry the abuses of science by one’s ideological foes – we all do this. We know that the Obama administration will criticize and correct where possible abuses of science by conservatives in the past. These include embryonic stem cells, the denial of man-made global warming, reliance upon abstinence-only sex education, and obstruction of the Plan-B over-the-counter “morning after” pill.
The real test will come when science conflicts with liberal ideology. The biggest issue I see here is that of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Already Tom Harkin, a fellow Democrat, is trying to use Obama’s health care initiative to increase the integration of unscientific CAM into science-based medicine.
As I discussed last week, Harkin’s agenda is about as unscientific and ideologically driven as you can get.
Ideology also trumps science when it comes to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). I and others have called upon Obama to disband this organization. The research they fund is either useless to science, serving only to promote CAM, or it can easily be funded by another center within the NIH. The political purpose of NCCAM is to create a double standard for CAM and to promote CAM – not to do good science.
If Obama is serious about putting science first then he will need to also take on those unscientific programs and beliefs that are popular with Democrats. (As a side note, CAM proponents often find support also among anti-regulation libertarian Republicans, but this does not lessen the point that it is also popular among many Democrats.)
There are other issues as well, many having to do with energy. This includes traditional Democratic opposition to nuclear power. It seems this has been weakening with the spike in oil prices last year, but we will see how this plays out. Subsidies for corn-based bio-fuel are also scientifically dubious but politically popular.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that Obama’s dedication to untainted science is real and he deserves credit for this. He clearly wants to send this signal with the memo he is attaching to his lifting of the Bush ESC ban. I am only pointing out that so far this principle has only been applied to opposing conservative positions. We have yet to see if his dedication to science will hold when traditionaly liberal positions are in the cross-hairs.
We will see.
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