Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The latest issue of New Scientist features a special report on the 2008 election, exploring the “most pressing science issues facing John McCain and Barack Obama in the run up to the November ballot.”

The key issue? According to the experts interviewed for the piece, it’s simply having someone in the White House who is “more aware of science” than the Bush administration has been for the past eight years. “We feel it’s enormously important to have a president who is scientifically savvy and who takes a leadership role in ensuring that our public policies are based on the best and most accurate scientific assessments,” Anne Soloman of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the Presidency tells the magazine.

The Bush administration has repeatedly drawn criticism not just for neglecting science, but for manipulating and suppressing science for political ends. Among the most notorious incidents was the attempted muzzling of NASA climate expert James Hansen. The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented dozens more cases where it says scientific integrity has been compromised, most often where science informs industrial regulation and environmental protection.

“There has been active sabotage,” says Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, which last month issued a nine-point plan called Saving Science from Politics. Among the changes it calls for are increased protection for whistleblowing scientists within federal agencies and a curb on the power of political appointees to influence the conclusions of government studies.

According to Steinzor, a systematic devaluation of science and scientists within the federal government over the past eight years leaves the next president with an enormous repair job on his hands. “We think this is a major area where change is needed,” agrees Lesley Stone, executive director of Scientists and Engineers for America, which promotes sound science in government.

The piece is critical of both McCain and Obama for not speaking specifically enough about these issues, but it indicates that Obama has done a better job of surrounding himself with advisers who are experts in science, climate, and energy policy.