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Obama order deals with scientific integrity

Memo puts emphasis on transparency and the best advice.

On the day that President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on the federal support of human embryonic stem-cell research, he also issued a memo directing the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy — the position for which John Holdren has still to be confirmed — to ensure scientific integrity in government decision-making.

The memo calls for agencies to hire scientific employees based on their knowledge, and to put rules in place for scientific integrity and transparency along with protection for whistleblowers.

Harold Varmus, co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, says the memo would help prevent the kind of instances during the administration of George W. Bush when political appointees interfered with the workings of government scientists. "The intent is to prevent that kind of undermining of the science advisory process," he says.

But John Marburger, Bush's science adviser, said in an e-mail: "There's certainly nothing wrong with it, but I never believed such a memorandum was necessary. From the perspective of the Obama administration, it delivers on a campaign commitment."

Robert George, a bioethicist at Princeton University in New Jersey and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, says that few would complain about getting the best scientific advice or maximizing transparency. But he says that the memo could run the risk of tarring opponents of stem-cell research as ideologues and enemies of science. "It's not a question of science on one side and ideology on the other," he says. "It's a dispute about what ethical norms will govern science."


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See Editorial, page 125

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Hand, E. Obama order deals with scientific integrity. Nature (2009).

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