Science in the White House: an interim report

Last January, Bryan praised Barack Obama’s inaugural address for promising to make decisions based on observation, data and statistics. Bryan also said,

We will keep a watchful eye over the next four years to make sure that science policy adheres to the agenda and principles that our new president has set out.

So, how are things going so far?


Last week, the White House released a new report on climate change. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, says the study is seriously flawed. He finds the report relies on data that is old, narrow, non-peer reviewed, second- and third-hand, and contradicted by more recent, peer-reviewed studies. He specifically objects to claims that global warming is leading to more natural disasters. Such disasters are Dr. Pielke’s specialty, and he argues there is no such trend.


Back in February, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that global warming was going to destroy agriculture in California. Dr. Pielke (who is becoming something of a one-man band in reigning in the more outrageous claims of global warming) picked apart that one as well.


In March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar removed gray wolves in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species list. This action was first proposed by President George W. Bush just before he left office, but suspended by the incoming administration. Two months later, they decided that Bush was right to accept the unanimous recommendation of Fish and Wildlife scientists.

Mark hates it when I point out stuff like that…

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

In a speech at MIT last month, Obama seems to have asked scientists to stop studying climate, or at least to stop producing results that contradict his conclusions.

posted on Fri, 11/20/2009 - 4:44pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Been a bit busy lately, but have been saving up more examples of how politicians of all stripes misuse science.

October 9, 2009

The New England Fishery Management Council recommends cutting the herring catch by 50% or more, based on old data, despite scientists acknowledging that conclusions based on this data are highly uncertain. (Herring is not endangered, threatened, or even overfished.)

March 13, 2010

The Subcommittee on Oversight in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was established to keep an eye on the science used in environmental issues. In the first year-plus of the Obama administration, it had not held a single hearing.

June 6, 2010

In response to the BP oil spill, the Obama administration declared a six-month freeze on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. They claimed this was based on the recommendation of seven experts selected by the National Academy of Engineering. The experts, however, say they never saw the recommendation for the ban, and they all oppose it.

The ban was lifted a couple weeks later by a federal judge, who found there was no "relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium.”

June 10, 2010

With regards to estimating the size of the spill, Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone magazine writes:

[T]he Obama administration has ... attacked scientists who released independent estimates of the spill. When one scientist funded by NOAA released a figure much higher than the government's estimate, he found himself being pressured to retract it by officials at the agency. "Are you sure you want to keep saying this?" they badgered him. ...

Scientists were stunned that NOAA, an agency widely respected for its scientific integrity, appeared to have been co-opted by the White House spin machine. "NOAA has actively pushed back on every fact that has ever come out," says one ocean scientist who works with the agency. "They're denying until the facts are so overwhelming, they finally come out and issue an admittance." ...

June 20, 2010

The panel appointed by Obama to investigate the oil spill has five policy advocates and management experts--but no one with any relevant engineering experience.

posted on Sun, 06/27/2010 - 7:57pm
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

"Scientists typically resort to public advocacy after concluding that, without it, the science will not get a fair hearing (Baruch Fischoff)."

If you are interested in merging you passions for science and public affairs, consider a career in science, technology, or environmental policy -- or all three: The University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs has a unique Master's program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP). Depending on your undergraduate background, you can pursue a Master's of Science (M.S.) or a Master's of Public Policy (M.P.P).

posted on Tue, 06/29/2010 - 12:12pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

According to this article from the LA Times, government scientists are complaining about being stifled or ignored by the Obama administration at the same rate they felt they were stifled and ignored by the Bush administration. Among their complaints:

* Political interference with scientists studying damage to the Everglades from development.

* Pressure to downplay the impact of dams on salmon.

* Ignoring the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

* Proceeding with oil and gas drilling in Alaska despite environmental concerns.

* Using chemical dispersants to fight the Gulf oil spill despite scientific advice to study the issue some more.

* Failure to deliver on Obama's promise to develop rules to guarantee scientific integrity.

posted on Sat, 07/17/2010 - 2:21am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Obama is a lot of talk, not a lot of doing. Think of how many promises and things he said to the American people during the election, and right after he was elected. I personally think he is all talk. Sure, the health reform was passed, but then what? No one is 100%sure as to what it exactly means. It will be interesting to see if Obama actually does much in the next year...

posted on Sat, 07/17/2010 - 11:16am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

It's been over a year since the last time we updated this post. In that time, there have been several more examples of how science and politics don’t always mix.

(NOTE: many of the items linked below come from writers who have a specific political agenda. Science Buzz takes no position on any of the policies being discussed—the programs might be good for the country, or bad, or a mix. We simply point out when the actions of the politicians and bureaucrats run counter to the facts in evidence.)

The Department of Education issued a rule which would restrict federally-funded student aid to for-profit colleges unless they could demonstrate their graduates attained “gainful employment.” But the study on which this regulation is based was shown to be seriously flawed. Yet, the rule was issued anyway.

The National Academy of Sciences, an independent, non-governmental association of leading scientists, has warned the Environmental Protection Agency that their scientific research and risk assessments programs are weak, and they risk losing credibility with the public.

Meanwhile, an EPA regulation designed to reduce power-plant sulfur emissions from crossing state lines was applied to Texas, even though the EPAs own modeling showed that Texas power plants had insufficient impact on other states.

Joanne Slavin, professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, was a member of the panel of scientists who advised the US Dept. of Agriculture in revising their Dietary Guidelines in 2011. After the guidelines were released, Prof. Slavin claimed the final guidelines were written by Department bureaucrats who paid little attention to the scientific evidence. At a nutrition conference in Tel Aviv, she stated, “There is no scientific basis for the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.”

Attorney General Eric Holder stated in February that "intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45." However, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show this is not true: homicide is actually far down the list of killers for this group, coming after cancer, heart disease, accidents and HIV.

Speaking in Minneapolis in April, President Obama called for increased funding for infrastructure maintenance. He cited the St. Anthony Falls bridge collapse as an example of the need. However, the National Transportation Safety Board had already declared the collapse was due to a design flaw, and had nothing to do with maintenance.

Also in April, the Obama administration announced its opposition to expanding a voucher system to allow public-school students to attend private schools, saying the program was ineffective. However, Prof. Patrick Wolf, the man hired by Congress to study the program, found the exact opposite to be true: students going through the program had significantly higher reading scores and graduation rates than those who did not.

In December 2010, the magazine New Scientist published an editorial complaining that the Obama administration was being slow in producing a promised policy on scientific integrity in government. The article cited instances where the Administration had ignored or misrepresented scientific findings.

An editorial in the Toronto Sun accused NASA of pressuring Canada to halt development in its oil industry over fears of pollution—while ignoring many other, much larger polluters in the US and China.

And there continues to be concern that the White House’s response to the 2010 Gulf oil spill was based on bad science.

posted on Wed, 08/24/2011 - 12:18pm

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