Holdren Takes Lumps From House Panel on Scientific Integrity

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Presidential science adviser John Holdren found himself in some hotter-than-usual water today during a congressional hearing on the Administration's proposed 2011 research budget. Legislators from both sides of the aisle pressed Holdren to explain several recent Administration decisions that they felt had failed to take into account sound science. And their ire was fueled by Holdren's confession that a report on how to improve scientific integrity among federal agencies is almost 8 months overdue.

In March of last year President Barack Obama directed Holden to develop guidelines "designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch." The exercise was a reaction to several celebrated incidents during the Bush Administration in which scientists had been muzzled, documents altered, and information withheld from the public. Due in July, the proposed guidelines are still being vetted by senior officials at several agencies.

Holden admitted today that the assignment has been much tougher than he expected. He told the committee about "the difficulties of constructing a set of guidelines that would be applicable to all agencies and accepted by all concerned." And he personally apologized to Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), who had written him three letters since July asking about the status of the review, for "the appalling delay."

Broun accepted the apology, but the former physician was hardly mollified.

Broun believes that the "magnitude of climate change is exaggerated" and that there is "no scientific consensus" on the effects of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Still, Holdren's slight of his letters—in which he cited alleged manipulation and mishandling of decisions ranging from the health effects of greenhouse gases to fuel standards for cars—gave him a platform from which to criticize what he called the Administration's "arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence" toward science. "As a scientist," he added, "I want to know the answers. The American public deserves the answers, and we're not getting them."

Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) was much more polite. But the ranking Republican on the panel was no less forceful in levying his criticism of several science-based policies. Hall questioned the Administration's decision to pull the plug on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, to cancel the Constellation space program to return astronauts to the moon, and to revamp a troubled $14 billion program to launch a flotilla of environmental satellites. "All these examples illustrate a troubling pattern in the Administration's science policy decisions," he asserted.

Democrats from districts likely to take a hit from the decision to cancel Constellation questioned whether the Administration had thought through its new policy, and complained about a lack of details. "This proposal offers us no way to plan for the future," said Representative Suzanne Kosmas (D--L). She wondered aloud whether Holdren or anyone else in the Obama Administration had thought about how to retain the highly trained scientific workforce at the Kennedy Space Center that she represents. "There is no question that there will be job losses," Holdren replied. "But we have some proposals that will provide new opportunities," he added, referring to possible missions to various deep-space targets, including Mars.

Not surprisingly, the chairman of the science committee seemed more willing to take Holdren at his word on the Administration's overall commitment to science and, more specifically, its upcoming policy on scientific integrity. "There are very few things in Washington that are delivered on time," said Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), after the hearing. "This project needs to be completed. But I'm seeing progress. And I think that, overall, things seem to be done in a much more transparent fashion."

Posted in Policy