Is The White House Flunking Science?

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When President Obama took office, science and environmental journalists were optimistic that they would see an improvement in the Executive Branch's approach to science and the openness with which it treated that science. The assertion in 2006 by James Hansen, NASA's leading climate researcher, that the Bush administration had attempted to prevent him from speaking out on the dangers caused by greenhouse gas emissions in many ways crystallized what was often seen as a distinct lack of scientific transparency over the previous eight years, a state of affairs that reporters hoped would be corrected.

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Initially, writes Curtis Brainard in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), those hopes appeared to be fulfilled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a ruling in 2009 that greenhouse gases "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations" – an obvious enough statement, one might think, but one that, under the previous administration, it had resisted making.

There were other welcome signs: for example, the appointments of the highly respected John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco as, respectively, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Plus, Obama directed Holdren to draft a plan to improve scientific integrity, including communications, in the Executive Branch.

However, since then, reality has often fallen short of rhetoric. For example, Obama gave Holdren 120 days to complete the aforementioned plan. More than two years later, Brainard writes that the plan is still not in place.

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CJR and ProPublica surveyed a random selection of environmental, science, and health journalists and asked them to rate Obama's administration in comparison to that of George W. Bush; although Obama received higher marks in nearly every category (including access to sources, ability to conduct interviews without 'minders', access to online database, and speed of processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests), 30 percent gave Obama a "poor" or "very poor" grade on overall transparency and access to information, and 42 percent gave him merely a "fair" grade overall.

"It actually has gotten better," Brainard quoted Joe Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) as observing. However, Davis continued, "I will also say in my next breath that the Obama administration hasn't lived up to its promises. They raised our expectations so high and the distance we've come is disappointingly short."

During a panel discussion this week at the National Press Club, one aspect that was repeatedly raised as being particularly irksome was a widespread inability to speak directly to scientists who conduct government-funded research without first going through PR contacts at the relevant governmental agency – contacts who, all too often, don't respond in time or at all.

Nancy Shute, president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), observed that "this has been an issue for decades. It seems with every new administration we have to begin over again. Some of us naively hoped the Obama administration, with its emphasis on openness, would make life easier. But you call a scientist, he or she says you have to go through [the relevant agency]. Days, weeks go by [and you hear nothing]. We're not talking about controversial stuff here, but good science funded by taxpayer dollars."

Often, added Felice Freyer of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), "it's like dropping a stone into a deep, deep well. You don't get a response, or you need to have a conversation, and you get a scripted statement."

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SEJ's Davis emphasized that "this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. One of the best press secretaries EPA ever had was Marlin Fitzwater [who would become White House Press Secretary for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush]. His mode of operation was to connect. He came forward, he didn't run away."

Davis also pointed out that, whatever the intentions of the administration, there are "entrenched interests and agencies" that may not share the desire for openness. For example, he underlined that Holdren did in fact complete his draft policy within 120 days as requested. Where it foundered was in the sprawling Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has authority to review and approve programs and policies in the Executive Branch. As Brainard wrote in his article, "Changing the culture of secrecy is a lot harder than redecorating the Oval Office."

Speaking at the Press Club discussion, Brainard also offered a dose of realism for unhappy reporters:

"The relationship between government and the media is fundamentally adversarial," he pointed out. "A reporter's job is to push through barriers, and find information that would not otherwise find the light of day. It isn't always the government's job to give us what we want. It's our job to dig it out."

White House photograph by Daniel Schwen, via Wikimedia Commons