The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were children of the Enlightenment. They understood the power that flows from combining human reason with empirical knowledge, and they assumed that the political system they were creating would thrive only in a culture that upheld the values of the Enlightenment. And thrive it did, in large part because our people and government upheld those values throughout most of U.S. history. Recently, however, the precepts of the Enlightenment were ignored and even disdained with respect to the manner in which science was used in the nation's governance. Dogma took precedence over evidence, and opinion over facts. Happily, as was made clear by two policy announcements by President Barack Obama on 9 March 2009, the break in the traditionally harmonious relationship between science and government is now ending(Kurt Gottfried is a cofounder of the Union of Concerned Scientists and chair of its board of directors. He is professor of physics emeritus at Cornell University. Harold Varmus is president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a cochair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and a former director of the National Institutes of Health.)
As the president put it, "promoting science isn't just about providing resources--it is also about protecting free and open inquiry … free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what [scientists] tell us, even when it's inconvenient--especially when it's inconvenient." In using the words "manipulation" and "coercion," the president was not speaking purely in the abstract; he was alluding to recent breaches of a code to which government must adhere if science is to play its proper role in advising the government on such complex issues as public health, climate change, or environmental protection. When the government systematically disregards this code, it undermines the historic role of science as a bulwark of an enlightened democracy.
In the president's Memorandum on Scientific Integrity last week, addressed to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, he directed those officials to neither suppress nor alter scientific and technological findings solicited in the process of policy formulation. He also asked that scientific information developed or used by the government be made readily available to the public. To put these directives in place, the president requested the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, within 120 days, recommendations "designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" and to ensure "that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda."
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The enlightenment returns.
I have been almost reduced to tears of gratitude by Obama's statements on restoring an American government that is guided by rationality and scientific integrity rather than a conservative religious faith that distorts both. Kurt Gottfried and Harold Varmus (see below) write an editorial in Science Magazine that salutes this (Here is the President's memorandum):