2010/03/09

Obama criticised for lack of science reform

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief

Exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama issued a memo pledging to remove political interference from science. His scientific adviser, John Holdren, was given 120 days to come up with a plan. But we're still waiting, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is ... well, concerned about the delay.

In a press release, the UCS complains that the Obama administration is "moving too slowly to establish badly needed reforms".

The UCS was a vociferous critic of the previous administration of George Bush, accusing it of censoring and distorting science to political ends, and appointing people to key scientific positions based on ideology, rather than technical qualifications. While Obama's 2009 memo suggested that many of the reforms urged by UCS would be implemented, the lobby group is becoming frustrated by the slow progress.

"They need to know that people are watching," says Francesca Grifo of UCS. "Just because we're trying to be helpful and patient, this doesn't mean it's slipped our minds."

The UCS points to a new report from George Washington University in Washington DC, which suggests that government scientists are still not always able to speak freely to the press or public, and sometimes are blocked from sharing their data – even with colleagues from other government agencies. In a survey conducted in July and August 2009, most said that little had changed since Obama took office.

Rick Weiss, director of strategic communications at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says that a plan should be unveiled soon: "We believe we are very close to having a great set of recommendations." The challenge has been finding procedures that work for the many federal agencies with an interest in science, Weiss adds.

In addition to removing political interference, Grifo says that much remains to be done to increase the transparency of government departments and agencies. Some, such as the US Department of Agriculture, still lack online directories allowing the public to get the contact details of officials responsible for important areas of science.

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