Politics & Policy

Political Science

Despite his protestations, Obama's science policy is driven by raw politics.

One of the most significant promises that President Obama made when he came into office was that science, not politics, would drive his administration’s policies. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” Obama said, and he has repeated this in various ways on various occasions. Although he famously used this pledge to make his case for scientific research that destroys human embryos, he has most often invoked it in the context of his environmental beliefs.

The promise has come with an unmistakable air of superiority and a hint of ridicule for his predecessor. No longer would knuckle-dragging, faith-based government officials ignore science, expecting Christ’s return to solve the problem of human damage to the environment. In an Obama administration, decisions would be based on science, not politics or ideology.

To make clear his serious intentions, Obama chose marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal government agency charged with mapping the oceans and conducting and funding a broad range of climate-related scientific research. Lubchenco’s selection cheered environmentalists concerned about the human role in climate change.

#ad#“Scientific knowledge should inform decision-making,” Lubchenco said at her April 9 swearing-in ceremony. “Scientists have an obligation to communicate . . . that management and policy decisions should focus on the common good and the long-term.”

But before this ceremony even took place, Obama’s administration had already begun cutting corners on its “science-based” rhetoric. Lubchenco’s very first regulatory decision in office, announced April 6, was to abandon, at least for now, her agency’s legally mandated goal to save certain New England fish-stocks. This decision was made with no scientific justification, but rather for political and economic reasons.

The Bush administration had developed a plan to end overfishing and replenish fish-stocks off the coasts of New England. The new regulations, which were to take effect this year, satisfied two major goals mandated under federal law: to replenish ten depleted stocks of New England fish by 2014, and to replenish seven other stocks on longer timeframes that stretch out to 2019 and beyond. Many of the stocks are not currently on pace to meet the deadlines set by the Stevens-Manguson Act, so the proposed regulations would have been onerous, costing the fishing industry as much as $35 million annually – about one-fifth of its total revenues.

But last week, Lubchenco drastically scaled back the Bush administration rules in order to help the fishing industry. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her decision, science is not driving it; as NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said, “the science is still the same.” Lubchenco’s downscaled rules, which will cost fishermen a mere $17.4 million per year, preserve short-term conservation goals but punt on long-term measures. They kick down the road the plans that scientists had proposed to rebuild stocks of pollock, witch flounder, Georges Bank winter flounder, and Northern windowpane.

The official NOAA explanation, contained in an economic analysis, is that the changes “are necessary to mitigate impacts on the fishing industry to the extent practicable, without fatally jeopardizing the likelihood that overfished multispecies stocks will achieve their rebuilding objectives.” Obscured by all the twenty-dollar words is the fact that Obama’s purportedly science-driven administration is overriding scientists for political reasons — in part because of the loud protestations of powerful members of Congress such as Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.).

To be sure, the curtailment of these regulations is probably a good idea. Fishermen and their families are still more important than fish, even in a purportedly “science-driven” administration. And someone, someday, will probably develop a plan that rebuilds these populations. The industry depends on it in the long run.

But if the new NOAA policy is any indication, Obama’s “science first” rhetoric contains far more bark than bite — and even if he would never admit it, he is far less different from Bush than he would have us believe. He meant literally his declaration that “promoting science is about . . . listening to what [scientists] tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” He will listen to the scientists, but that does not mean that his administration will actually do what they recommend when politics dictates otherwise.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.

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