Restoring science to its rightful place

Yesterday President Barack Obama took a decision that the scientific community has been eagerly awaiting ever since he was sworn in last January, when he issued an executive order ending the severe restrictions that President George W. Bush imposed on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research eight years ago.  This was however not the only sign that President Obama intends to follow through on his promise that his administration will “restore science to its rightful place“, in a memorandum on scientific integrity sent to all heads of government departments to the President states that:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.  If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.  To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.  The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

Music to our ears!

Does this mean that the scientific community can relax and get back to the laboratory? Sadly we think not. While some threats to scientific progress are diminishing others are growing, indeed we have just heard that there has been another arson attack on a scientist in California, but there are more insideous threats to scientific medicine that we cannot ignore.

Last week the science blogger Orac wrote a couple of items on his Respectful Insolence blog about attempts of a Senator Tom Harkin to undermine efforts to create an evidence-based medical system through political interference in the work done by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the NIH).  It turns out that two of the woo-meisters that Sen. Harkin recently invited to speak to the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Andrew Weil and Dean Ornish, are members of the advisory board of PCRM , the notorious psuedo-science organisation that we discussed only yesterday. That the advisory board of PCRM should include cranks should come as no surprise, after all its most well known member is Dr Henry Heimlich who has over the years attempted to convince the public that the anti-choking maneuver he made famous should be used for conditions such as drowning and asthma  for which it is totally inappropriate.  More recently he has been conducting thoroughly unethical trials of scientifically dubious malaria therapy for a range of diseases including HIV/AIDS.  Just remember, when people refer to “scientific anti-vivisection” these are the people they are talking about.  Perhaps the inclusion of the word “responsible” in the name “Physicians Committee for responsible Medicine” is not entirely honest!

So amid the celebrations we must not relax into complacency, if we are to defend science and science-based medicine we will need to continue to make our voices heard on the airwaves, in the press, on the web and ultimately in the corridors of power.

Paul Browne