When President-elect Barack Obama showed off Steven Chu, the
Nobel-prize winning physicist he hand-picked to be his energy
secretary, you could almost hear the American scientific
community exhale, loudly and deeply – thousands of researchers,
from Berkeley to MIT and everywhere in between, breathing a
long, satisfying collective sigh of relief, as one.
Al Teich was one of them. Teich is the director of science and
policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement
of Science in Washington, D.C., a 130,000-member scientific
think tank with a staunch non-partisan stance. "Though it's been
harder to say that in the last eight years," Teich chuckles
Indeed, under the Bush administration, the scientific community
has been through some dark days, to say the least. And it hasn't
been a simple case of diminishing funding, as is so often the
issue in the realm of governmental research. No, Teich says,
Obama's remarks at Chu's appointment spoke directly to the
Reading between the lines, Teich seized on two of Obama's
statements in particular: "(Chu's) appointment should send a
signal to all that my administration will value science," Obama
said during the press conference. "We will make decisions based
on facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."
"If that's not a departure from the last eight years, then I
don't know what is," Teich says.
Valuing science? The Bush administration has "systematically
ignored, censored, misrepresented, muzzled or distorted" members
of the scientific community whose findings didn't match their
various agendas, said Michael Halpern, the program manager for
the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned
Scientists, a scientific research watchdog group. After Bush's
two terms you can imagine how scientists in a previously robust
research community might feel a little underappreciated.
Decisions based on the facts? Post-Bush, most scientists would
agree that so simple an agenda has the unfortunate sheen of
being a novelty. "(Obama's comments) were obviously a slap at
the (Bush) administration," says Teich, who works directly with
legislators to help keep them informed on major scientific
advancements and initiatives.
Under Bush, "most of the time, ideological concerns trumped
science," Teich says. "Non-scientists over-ruling scientists –
re-writing reports, changing positions the administration didn't
like to those that ran counter to the vast consensus of
scientific research, omitting findings that were inconvenient,
facts that were made up – these kinds of things were rampant."
It sounds almost too ridiculous to be true, like a band of
thick-headed high school jocks bullying the hapless nerds into
doing their term papers for them, insisting on adding their own
stamp at the end.
And in any other circumstance, you'd be forgiven for regarding
Teich and Halpern for being conspiracy theorists. They're not.
In scientific circles, and among scientific publications and
journals, this is depressingly old, well-established news (the
AAAS publishes the venerable journal Science).
Climate change and efforts to curtail industrial incursion into
environmentally sensitive regions have been at the front line of
the Bush administration's war against science ("Mr. Bush, or
more to the point, vice-president Dick Cheney, came to office
determined to dismantle Bill Clinton's environmental legacy,
undo decades of environmental law and keep their friends in
industry happy," The
New York Timessaid in a recent editorial).
But the scientific consensus that climate change is caused
largely by human emissions of carbon dioxide has been a
particular flashpoint. Documented proof of deep, endemic
tampering on the part of the White House into United States
federal scientific agencies like the Environmental Protection
Agency is a field of inquiry unto itself.
Bluntly put, says Halpern, the Bush administration
systematically used its executive powers "to inject uncertainty
where there is no uncertainty, and confuse the public about it."
To name but a few of the more famous cases, in 2002, the EPA's
report on air pollution omits an entire section on global
warming – the first such omission since it first appeared in
1996, according to the New
York Times. The following year, the Timesrevealed
the White House had directly and significantly editied another
EPA report about climate change, prompting agency scientists to
disown their own work, saying it "no longer accurately
represents scientific consensus" on the pressing phenomenon.
Then, in 2005, Philip Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American
Petroleum Institute working at the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, is found to have tampered with yet
another EPA report on climate change. Leaving the White House in
scandal, Cooney is quickly hired by Exxon Mobil.
But perhaps the most glaring occasion of tampering, and one that
helped blow the lid off the systemic culture of meddling across
various agencies, occurred in 2006. In January, lead NASA
climate scientist James Hansen said the White House had
forbidden him from openly discussing empiric research that
suggested severe global warming risks.
The keeper of his muzzle, it was revealed, was a twentysomething
White House appointee named George Deutsch. Deutsch, who had
worked on the Bush campaign and had no scientific training, at
the time had not yet completed his college undergraduate degree.
His role at NASA, he said at the time, was "to make the
president look good."
Hansen went on to say that the threat of punitive measures was
not oblique, saying he and his climate scientists were told
there would be "dire consequences" if the White House line on
climate change was not strictly adhered to.
Enter Obama, with his promise to "value" science. "A lot of
people are hopeful," says Halpern. "At the same time, scientists
don't see the Obama administration as being a panacea of being
able to clean things up wholesale."
After two terms of consistent agenda-mongering distorting
scientific findings, Halpern has a right to be skeptical. "No
administration since World War II has been able to resist the
temptation to politicize science in some way," he says.
But Chu's appointment is hopeful for a couple of reasons, Teich
says. For one, he's an accomplished career scientist with no
political background ("He's appointed based on his
qualifications," Teich says – given recent circumstances, an
apparent novelty. Teich laughs. "Isn't it, though?")
Two, he's a member of cabinet, and therefore deep inside the
president's inner circle – a position John Marburger, Bush's
presidential science advisor, did not enjoy. Marburger also
wasn't appointed until almost a year after Bush took office,
much like the Food and Drug Administration, an agency with
important watchdog duties which went more than a year before
Bush appointed a commissioner.
Obama's appointment of Chu before he even takes office indicates
the significance with which he regards scientific achievement,
Teich says. "He's worked with scientists, he has a feel for it,"
It's a start, says Halpern. But it's not enough. His agency is
calling for complete transparency from the Obama presidency with
regards to its scientific agencies, after a near-decade of
"What we know Federal scientists will be looking for is that
government will operate in an open manner, and scientists will
be listened to," he says.
Halpern cites the incoming head of the EPA in 1983, William
Ruckelshaus , coming into the agency after a dark period of
scandal. Ruckelshaus's first act was to send out his now-famous
"fishbowl" memo, promising the agency would operate only in
broad view of the public, with no secret meetings, no covert
research, and no chance to be viewed as being in industry's
pocket – a legitimate charge that had plagued the EPA before he
To many in the scientific community today, this will sound
numbingly familiar. But Obama provides not just early hope, but
action. Already, his transition team is looking into where it
can use executive powers to undo a slate of Bush interventions
on the environment.
A case in point is 146,000 hectares of Utah wilderness the
Bureau of Land Management is set to open up to oil and gas
drilling. The Bush administration has argued, with scientific
backing that runs in opposition to the EPA, that it will have no
impact on the environment; the Obama team is looking at
cancelling the initiative wholesale.
Hope? After eight years of Bush, Halpern insists it must be
tempered with caution. "One thing Bush did for science that was
positive was to shake the complacency out of the scientific
community by laying bare how their work could be distorted or
misused," he says. "There's a lot of systemic damage that's been
done to American science, and it won't be easy to pick up the
Teich prefers the glass-half-full approach. "I think there's
genuine optimism, for the first time in years," he says. But
looking forward, he can't resist a quick glance back. Of the
Bush era, Teich speaks for all his 130,000 members with a
simple, polite expression of relief: "We're looking forward to
it coming to an end."