Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Scientists and Engineers for America sent a questionnaire to the major-party presidential candidates asking them about innovation and a number of science-related issues. Obama responded several weeks ago, and now McCain has delivered his answers. You can compare their responses on climate change, energy, ocean health, water shortages, government-funded research, and scientific integrity.

Most of the candidates’ answers will sound familiar to those who’ve been following these issues during the campaign. The responses about scientific integrity are perhaps the most interesting, considering how bad the current administration has been in this realm.

Q: Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

McCain’s response:

We have invested huge amounts of public funds in scientific research. The public deserves to have the results of that research. Our job as elected officials is to develop the policies in response to those research results. Many times our research results have identified critical problems for our country. Denial of the facts will not solve any of these problems. Solutions can only come about as a result of a complete understanding of the problem. I believe policy should be based upon sound science. Good policy development will make for good politics.

I support having a science and technology advisor within the White House staff and restoring the credibility and role of OSTP as an office within the White House structure. I will work to fill early in my Administration both the position of Science Adviser and at least four assistant directors within OSTP. I am committed to asking the most qualified scientists and engineers to join not only my OSTP, but all of the key technical positions in my Administration.

Integrity is critical in scientific research. Scientific research cannot succeed without integrity and trust. My own record speaks for integrity and putting the country first, not political agendas.

Obama’s response:

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

In addition I will:

  • Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;
  • Establish the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;
  • Strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and
  • Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for “whistle blowers” who report abuses of these processes.

This is all the more interesting right now, after this story detailing the secrecy in Sarah Palin’s scientific dealings in Alaska.