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The White House (in an illustration, with red-white-and-blue nuclear particle orbits spinning about the tip of the flagpole)

An open letter to the new president

Science matters

Dear Mr. President,

In stepping forward to address matters of science and biomedical policy at the outset of the administration, you’ll be in distinguished company. Sort of. You’ll recall that your predecessor, George W. Bush, gave his first televised address to the nation on the subject of embryonic stem cell research in August 2001.

That speech marked, in many ways, the beginning of the science-related scandals that punctuated the Bush administration. On stem cell research, contraception, sex education and many, many other subjects, members of the scientific community accused your predecessor’s government of rampant distortion of the facts. Eventually, scientific luminaries grew so unhappy with the Bush administration’s actions that they signed multiple joint statements denouncing it — and not just that. During the 2008 election, many of the leading organizations of American science joined forces to call for a presidential debate on science policy, an unprecedented mobilization of the research community.

The scientists didn’t get their debate — but you could give them a much more sound science and biomedical policy agenda. The remainder of this letter will sketch out how.

Take the big issue first — embryonic stem cell research. After Bush set forward his “compromise” policy, which promised “more than 60” genetically diverse lines for federally funded research, scientists quickly found that not nearly so many lines were actually available. And so the field began to seek out state-level, private and international funding opportunities, even as the president repeatedly vetoed bills passed by Congress that would have broadened his policy — bills, it might be added, that drew significant support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

In the end, only the president himself, through repeated vetoes, could keep his unpopular stem cell policy intact. At present, it’s hanging by a slender thread. So you can start your administration with an executive order that finally reverses the Bush policy and allows ethical research to go forward on leftover in vitro fertilization embryos, without restriction to the limited set of embryonic stem cell lines that the president designated back in 2001. Even though adult stem cells have recently shown unexpected promise, we still need to conduct considerably more basic research on embryonic ones, to pursue all of the scientific possibilities.

But stem cell research is just one of many biomedical and bioethical policy matters that you’ll likely encounter over the course of the administration. The prospect of “therapeutic cloning” raises new and distinct concerns, and what about the use of human-animal chimeras in biomedical research? Where will the line be drawn? For that matter, what of human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter’s plans to create a synthetic minimal genome organism — essentially, constructing a very simple form of life in the laboratory? And what of the issues that we can’t even predict now, but that we may encounter within the next four to eight years?

To tackle these, you’ll need to appoint a distinguished assistant to the president for science and technology — a well-known representative of the research community who can head up the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There was considerable scandal over this position during the past administration — President Bush’s science adviser, John Marburger, did not receive the cabinet level rank enjoyed by his most recent predecessors. Remembering this, the science community will be looking to you to name a distinguished, credible science adviser, and to restore his or her status. Indeed, this may constitute the most important symbolic gesture you can make to the research community.

A survey of the history of presidential science advice suggests you’ll want an adviser who’s just as talented in management as in science, and who’s a quick learner in multiple fields, whatever his or her original academic specialty may be. Most of all, though, you’ll want someone you can trust, someone you’ll feel comfortable meeting with as frequently as twice a month or even once a week.

Timeliness will also be essential for this appointment. The Bush administration delayed so long in appointing Marburger that he had basically no influence on the controversial stem cell decision. Ditto for appointing the director of the National Institutes of Health, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and the surgeon general — these posts also remained unfilled well into the last administration. It was tantamount to saying to the research community: “We don’t really care enough to be bothered about this stuff.” Your administration will have a very different message.

To deal with biomedical policy issues, you’ll also want to appoint a bioethics advisory committee. Yet again, this became a scandalous matter under the past administration, after distinguished biomedical researcher Elizabeth Blackburn charged that she was removed from the council because of politics (more specifically, her disagreement with council chair Leon Kass about stem cell research). The American people are, frankly, just tired of these sorts of scandals. On your watch you’ll want an intellectually diverse bioethics council, although it will be important not to sacrifice intellectual excellence for the sake of political breadth.

And speaking of politics….With all the past science scandals at all of the various agencies, many scientists believe there’s considerable housecleaning to be done, and considerable morale to be restored. In the biomedical arena, this goes especially for the Department of Health and Human Services: In particular, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been the sites of many controversies between scientists and political types over matters like Plan B emergency contraception and sex education.

So working with the relevant cabinet secretaries and heads of agencies, your presidential science adviser should kick off the administration with a scientific integrity investigation that will ensure that the transgressions have ended — and that will, in essence, give the agencies a clean bill of scientific health. In the past administration, we had a very unfruitful situation — Congressional and media investigators kept exposing science problems at the agencies, but the administration just dismissed the charges. It’s far better for your administration to acknowledge upfront the problems that have occurred, and move to address them.

The scientific issues that will confront you over the next four years and beyond will pivotally shape the national future (and we didn’t even cover global warming!). But once you’ve got the right advisers in place and restored morale and trust in the science agencies, you’ll be ready for them.

Chris Mooney is the author of The Republican War on Science, Basic Books, 2005.






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