The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again.  They really do it.  It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful.  But it happens every day.  I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."...  ...Carl Sagan.

Commentary of the Day - December 22, 2008: A Breath of Fresh Air, at Long Last!

Today's commentary strays a bit from our usual focus on education, but the return to evidence-based government science policy should have consequences for education in a broad sense.

The recent nominations to high-level positions in the new administration by President-Elect Obama suggest an about-face from the ideologically driven policies of the Bush administration in important areas including environment, health, education, and government science policy.  Obama has nominated Steven Chu to be Secretary of Energy, Ken Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior, Lisa P. Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Nancy Sutley to chair the Council on Environmental Quality, and Carol Browner to serve as Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, along with Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), John Holdren to serve as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and to chair the president's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.  Joining Holdren as co-chairs of the latter group will be Harold Varmus and Eric Lander.  These nominations together with those of Tom Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education indicate that Obama is serious about restoring the role of evidence-based science in the development of federal policy in these key areas.

Chu's nomination to head the Department of Energy should finally help to lead the United States away from its heavy dependence on fossil fuels towards more sustainable, renewable energy sources that are more environmentally friendly.  At the same time, the development of alternative energy sources should reduce our dependence on foreign sources.  Chu is both a distinguished scientist -- he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for fundamental work in atomic physics -- and an experienced administrator -- he has been director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory since 2004.  Under Chu the laboratory has launched major efforts to develop bio-fuels and solar energy.  The increased use of bio-fuels and solar energy would reduce net carbon emissions.  Even though bio-fuels release CO2 when they are burned, the new plant materials that are grown to replace them remove an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Salazar has his work cut out for him at Interior.  The department has been plagued by scandals during the Bush Administration in its mineral revenue management operations.  The department has been notoriously quick to auction off mineral rights and to permit logging on public lands, including some lands that have exceptional scenic value and some that are environmentally sensitive.  During the past eight years the department also has been unusually aggressive in removing species from the endangered species list.  While Salazar is by no means a radical environmentalist, he is a Coloradan with a solid record of stewardship for the environment.

The choice of Jane Lubchenco to head NOAA indicates that President-Elect Obama takes the challenges of climate change very seriously.  Lubchenco is a highly-regarded marine ecologist and environmental scientist from Oregon State University who was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1997 to 1998.  She has received numerous awards for her research in environmental science including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Nierenberg Prize for science in the public interest from Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  In the past NOAA scientists have carried out important work on climate change.  However, under its previous director Conrad Lautenbacher, there have been numerous allegations of political interference with agency scientists.  NOAA is a Department of Commerce agency.  With Lubchenco heading NOAA and Bill Richardson at Commerce, there is much less likelihood that the work of NOAA scientists will be censored or suppressed.

The choices of Holdren, Varmus, and Lander as co-chairs of the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology indicate that evidence-based science is likely to have more influence on policy than it did under Bush, who neglected to appoint a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for some six months after he was elected.  The selection of Varmus and Lander, both of who are outstanding biomedical scientists should signal that scientific evidence will play a greater role in government policies involving such issues as stem cell research and AIDS prevention.  Likewise, Holdren's selection is an indication that government policy on climate change is likely to be driven more by science than by the interests of oil companies.

Daschle will face major challenges at Health and Human Services.  In addition to supervising agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Daschle will need to lead the effort to fix the badly broken American health care system.  Presently the amount spent on health care in the United States per capita is almost twice as great as in any other industrialized county, yet we have poorer outcomes.  Private health insurers have learned how to optimize bottom-line profits at the expense of both patients and health care providers.  Restoring sanity to this system will not be easy.  Drug safety issues have plagued the Food and Drug Administration throughout the Bush Administration.  A number of drugs have had to be removed from the market after FDA approval, suggesting that the agency has been too quick to accept pharmaceutical company studies and too slow to require independent evidence of drug safety and efficacy.  Political interference in the dissemination of CDC research results on the potential effects of climate change on the spread of infectious diseases took place during the Bush Administration.  Likewise, there were attempts to prevent the CDC from providing accurate information to the public about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.  Health education should be guided by the best scientific evidence, not by the dictates of any political ideology.

Obama's choice of Arne Duncan to head the Department of Education has been controversial.  Many on the right consider him too liberal, while many in the "progressive" Democratic camp consider him too conservative.  Linda Darling-Hammond was their favorite.  She was a key player on Obama's transition team, but was not chosen most likely because she is too closely allied with the interests of the teachers' unions.  Duncan is a reformer who is not afraid to challenge the status quo, and to demand high standards.  Under his leadership Chicago schools, have made significant improvements.  Though he supports the No Child Left Behind Act, the bane of classroom teachers, he has indicated a desire to give the schools much more flexibility in implementing the Act.

Overall, the people Obama has selected for key positions in science and education policy, like his other choices, are highly intelligent, moderate by and large, and independent.  It will be interesting to see how well they work together, and how much they can accomplish in the face of the severe economic challenges faced by the incoming administration.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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