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Ending the war on science?

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images
President Obama wins applause Monday after signing an
executive order on stem cell research. Among the onlookers are
two Nobel laureates: Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Harold
Varmus, who is co-chairman of Obama's science advisory council.

President Obama made good on a campaign promise today by announcing a plan to raise the level of scientific integrity in policymaking - but the guy who is supposed to flesh out the plan is still stuck in Senate confirmation limbo.

Word about Obama's presidential memorandum on scientific integrity came as the president signed a separate executive order loosening the White House's limits on stem cell research.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said during today's signing ceremony. "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."

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The Associated Press that the turnout for the ceremony included "more happy scientists than I've seen" at the White House during his 30 years in Washington.

Doug Melton, who is the co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute as well as the father of two children with Type I diabetes that could possibly be treated with stem cells, said he welcomed today's developments as "an enormous relief and a time for celebration."

"Science thrives when there is an open and collaborative exchange, not when there are artificial barriers, silos, constructed by the government," Melton said in a statement.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, came under criticism throughout his White House tenure for letting political leanings dictate federal policy on issues ranging from embryonic stem cells to environmental policies. There's a long list of horror stories, including the tales told about climate researcher Rick Piltz and wildlife biologist Andy Eller, as well as accounts from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Today's memo calls on the director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to draw up a detailed plan over the next 120 days to make sure officials who deal with science and technology policy are selected because of their expertise rather than their politics. The plan also would seek to ensure that all the findings on which policy decisions are based will be made public, and that appropriate protections will be extended to "science whistleblowers" who question the basis for those decisions.

The memo makes good on a promise included in Obama's responses to a Science Debate 2008 questionnaire. Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," said the memo breaks new ground by putting the White House's top science adviser in charge of guaranteeing scientific integrity at every federal agency. "It sounds like the people in the Cabinet will need to talk to him like an equal," Mooney said.

During the previous administration, White House science adviser John Marburger often seemed to be cast as an apologist for Bush's science policies rather than a watchdog, Mooney said. "Either Marburger or the agency would say, 'No, we didn't do anything wrong. This is standard agency procedure,'" he said.

"It's a different situation now. ... There are going to be rules, things you can't do - and at least nominally, that's more than the Bush administration did," Mooney added.

The only problem is that Obama's nominee for science adviser, Harvard physicist and climate expert John Holdren, hasn't yet been confirmed by the Senate. Neither has marine researcher Jane Lubchenco, Obama's choice to head NOAA.

The reasons for the delay are murky: Any senator can put a hold on a confirmation vote, and for a time it looked as if the culprit was Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. But late last week, Menendez's office told Talking Points Memo that the senator was no longer standing in the way. So who is?

Lubchenco has faced some criticism from Eastern fishing interests, but it's Holdren who has generated the most controversy. Some worry that Holdren holds extreme views on the global climate crisis, and that science policies might be slanted to fit those views. That's made him a lightning rod for commentators sounding the alarm about a "Democrat War on Science."

Mooney addressed those worries in a Science Progress blog posting in December and is keeping an eye on the controversy. In Mooney's view, the opposition is a political reaction to the years of criticism that Bush faced on the integrity issue. "What could be more obvious than to try to do a 180 and flip it, and say, 'No, it's Obama who's trying to get political'?" Mooney said.

For whatever reason, Holdren's appointment remains on hold - and thus Obama's plan for improving scientific integrity may have to be put on hold as well.

You'll find a variety of perspectives on Obama's policies from the National Academies, from TierneyLab at The New York Times, from Commonweal and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Feel free to weigh in with your own comments below.