A closer look at Obama's judges, federal agencies, and his approach to science and secrecy

  • The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species in 2008, and last year, pressured by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the Obama administration designated 120 million acres of critical habitat -- mostly sea ice. Regardless, climate change is shrinking the sea ice. Some environmentalists say this administration missed an opportunity to bring the discussion of climate change to the forefront when it declined to upgrade the listing from threatened to endangered.

    Martha de Jong-Lantink, cc via Flickr
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu makes a presentation on “Building a Sustainable Energy Future” in December at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún.

    Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) and U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listen to public comments at a meeting on healthy forests in Deer Lodge, Montana, last March.

    USDA
 

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Science and secrecy

Background In March 2009, alongside an order lifting Bush's ban on funding for stem-cell research, Obama issued a memorandum stating that "science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues." He directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop a new scientific integrity policy to keep "scientific and technological information" from being "compromised" and protect whistleblowers.

The struggle The Interior Department proposed its own scientific integrity policy in August 2010, which read as if the most serious threat came from dishonest staff scientists rather than from the supervisors who might meddle in those scientists' work. Advocacy groups such as OMB Watch and the Union of Concerned Scientists complained, and a month later, Interior responded with a new policy that prohibits the altering of scientific conclusions by employees or management, adding that "employees will be protected if they uncover and report scientific misconduct by career or political staff."

On Dec. 17, 2010 -- 21 months after the president's deadline -- OSTP Director John Holdren finally issued official guidance to all federal agencies on all matters of science and technology. The memo calls for "the free flow of scientific and technology information" and "open communication ... between these experts and the public." But it also limits federal scientists' interactions with the public -- including journalists -- to those approved by the relevant public affairs office.

Why it's not enough As much as the Obama administration has promised "an unprecedented level of openness," journalists and other members of the public have at times confronted unprecedented restrictions -- especially when it comes to interviewing scientists. Rarely does an interview happen with an EPA or Fish and Wildlife staffer without a minder; some Forest Service employees have been explicitly forbidden from speaking with the press at all. Christy George of Oregon Public Radio, for instance, says that just as she sat down to interview Forest Service scientist Ron Neilson about his climate-change research, public affairs called and told him not to talk.

This administration's problem appears to be less about suppressing science than about directing the narrative: "The Obama administration is a very disciplined machine," says Jeffrey Ruch, head of PEER, "and they want to carry the message of the day. But the nature of transparency is that there will be uncontrolled chaotic releases of information from the bureaucracy. You can't have message control and transparency, too."

by Judith Lewis Mernit

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Obama’s record on Western environmental issues
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