Drew Richardson | The importance of good science in the Obama administration

Which is President-elect Obama’s most important personnel appointment? Secretary of State? Attorney General? Secretary of the Treasury? The answer is none of them – not even close. I adamantly believe that distinction goes to his Presidential Science Advisor.
You ask, “We are in the midst of two wars and our economy is crumbling, and you’re interested in science??? Glad you asked. Let me explain. I truly believe that good science is a prerequisite for fixing many of our nation’s problems.

We began the present Iraq War with a preemptive military strike based upon an imminent threat involving the use of weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found. Apparently, the suspect weapons were either misidentified prior to the war, or worse yet, claimed to exist without any serious effort directed towards a valid identification. These chemical and biological agents are readily identifiable. The failure lies in the absence of good science.

Aside from the circumstances of our entry into the present war, the smaller, more efficient and high-tech national defense that is core to the political belief system of many will likewise depend upon good science.

Over and above the widely recognized crises that currently exist in our financial markets, the housing, insurance and automobile industries, our economy is generally thought to be in decline. Part of the suggested remedy for this ailing economy is the addition of millions of jobs to fill newly created green industries.

These green industries are tied not only to our general economic well-being, but also to the necessary stewardship of our environment, a more efficient utilization of energy sources and to our transportation system. The extent to which we have sufficient and affordable energy is a matter of national security. There is a common denominator to be found in solving the problems in these complex and intertwined spheres. And that would be good science.

Federal law enforcement and homeland security personnel continue to utilize 20th century witchcraft in the 21st century. This astrology equivalent, polygraphy or lie detection is used to interrogate criminal and terrorist suspects and to screen the ranks of its own employees and applicants all with no diagnostic validity whatsoever. Clearly the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security must insist on better. The answer will lie with both common sense and good science.

If we are to have a credible leadership role in the new green and other high-tech industries, we must change the emphasis of our education. The Department of Education must ensure that at every instructional level that students have highly qualified teachers and other necessary tools that together best encourage these students to learn and have the opportunity to enter the workplace in the areas of math and science.

We must fix our failing health care system in this country. This will require more than sound economic policy and the elimination of bureaucratic malfeasance and greed. There will be hard choices to be made about the efficacy of various competing treatments and drug regimens. Biomedical science will be at the center of these discussions.

As I have indicated science will impact the policy of virtually the entire presidential Cabinet. And I’ve not even mentioned crop production, food safety, endangered species, global warming, space exploration, federal land protection and a whole host of other areas.

Science does not and should not exist in a vacuum. Whether it is in teaching biological evolution or with the intricacies of stem cell research, science is intermeshed with various sensitivities concerning religious belief and ethical practice. Although good science should not be compromised, science cannot run roughshod over society’s other important concerns.

Which brings me to my suggestion for a person to fill this role of Presidential Science Advisor. This person should be highly educated, broadly experienced in the areas of physical and biological sciences, and highly accomplished in his or her fields of endeavor. At the risk of appearing a bit too parochial I would suggest one of Staunton’s favorite sons, Dr. Francis Collins.


– Column by Drew Richardson

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