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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Science on Hold

Air Date: Week of March 13, 2009

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Despite President Barack Obama's recent focus on science, his two nominees for high-profile science positions are stuck in Senate limbo. Anonymous Senators have put holds on the confirmation of Jane Lubchenco, picked to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and John Holdren, chosen as the president's special assistant for science and technology. The delay is bad for President Obama and for Americans, says Francesca Grifo, a senior scientists with the Union of Concerned Scientist.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

President Obama has been busy reversing the policies of the previous president - recently lifting the ban on federal funding for stem cell research and ordering government officials to put science before politics.

OBAMA: It is about ensuring scientific data is never distorted, or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not on ideology.

[Applause]

GELLERMAN: But - despite his focus on things scientific - the President is still without two of his most important science advisors. They’re John Holdren, to head up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenko, the nominee to head up NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Both Holdren and Lubchenko sailed through their confirmation hearings but have been in Senate limbo ever since.

And that worries Francesca Grifo. She directs the scientific integrity program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

GRIFO: One of the things that we’ve been very concerned about is the scientific advice for the President. And that’s really the role of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is to be there to think about these very difficult, very complex science and policy issues for the President. And, you know, NOAA, a very important agency – not only does it deal with endangered fishes but also other fisheries issues, climate issues. So there are very important things in front of these folks, and I’m sure they are very anxious to have these holds lifted and to be able to go and do their jobs, which of course are the jobs that will benefit the American public in the long run.

GELLERMAN: So the Senate is holding these nominations up for reasons that are secret. What’s going on?

GRIFO: Well, unfortunately, this does happen. You know, the Senate has different procedures from the House, and this is one of those things that they’re allowed to do, is if a Senator, for whatever reason, would like to hold up an appointment, they can do that by placing one of these holds. And they don’t have to reveal who has the hold.

GELLERMAN: Are these Senators trying to get something out of the administration and they’re just kind of holding these nominations hostage until they get what they want?

GRIFO: Hard to know, in this case. I think there probably was some sort of calculation in the minds of the people putting on the holds of “hmm … maybe science advisor, maybe head of NOAA, not so important that the American public is going to link it immediately to something that has consequences for their lives.” But I think that’s where they’re wrong. I think that it’s not such a big leap for people to understand and it certainly is the case that the decisions that are made in these agencies, the decisions that are related to science, in fact, do have a bearing on our lives – everyday in so many ways, whether it’s our health and safety, whether it’s the quality of our environment. They do, in fact, have a profound impact. And, you know, President Obama does not have these critical people by his side. You know, the memorandum that was released recently by President Obama on scientific integrity certainly tells us one thing that he’d like Dr. Holdren and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to work on and that is to develop a strategy that really ensures that there is scientific integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological issues. That’s a big, big assignment. But it is certainly one that is very important. And obviously what they’re able to do about it is going to be limited until they have a director in place. And that’s a problem. That’s a big problem. And at some point, they’re gonna realize that the consequences of that problem are much bigger than the other issues at hand.

GELLERMAN: Francesca Grifo is director of the Scientific Integrity Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thank you very much.

GRIFO: Thank you.

 

Links

The Union of Concerned Scientists

 

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