19 December 2010

Scientific integrity comes to America

It’s official: the US government is going to keep politics out of science.

I’m confused about the appropriate response to the news. Do I whoop with joy over this promising turn of events that will lead to greater scientific progress in the US? Or do I facepalm myself over the politicians’ pathetically belated realisation that science and political ideology should never, ever mix?

Ambivalent reactions aside, it can only be considered a good thing that the Obama administration has publicly declared the independence of science from undue political influence. Yes, I’m aware that a public declaration isn’t a magic spell that will suddenly banish all such influence. But at least American scientists will finally be able to do their thing under the aegis of policies that contain “a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency.”

This has been a long time coming. For years now scientists and organisations like the Center for Inquiry (CFI) have been calling for such pro-science action. The retardation of science under the Bush administration has arguably eroded America’s commercial, technological and intellectual prominence. It has also very likely contributed to the prevalence of anti-scientific attitudes, while nurturing disdain for evidence-based decision making.

The Obama administration’s green light for independent science comes at a time when the US sorely needs to up its game in scientific literacy. In a 2006 world ranking of science literacy among high school students, the US ranked at No. 22 out of 33 countries, which is well below the OECD average (ditto for maths and reading). With American scientific advancement no longer a signed and sealed deal, the last thing US politicians should be doing is sabotaging their already beleaguered science institutions with anti-scientific meddling (and if it’s the Republicans doing the meddling, you can bet your retirement fund that it will be anti-scientific).

Of course, it would also help if members of the science community refrained from making silly comments regarding ‘political bias’ in the actual practise of science, rather than in its implementation, which can indeed be politicised. Now that the Obama administration has pledged to maintain the integrity and independence of science, freshly energised and emboldened scientists should start strutting their stuff. Even if most of them are Democrats.


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