It’s easy to forget—with the global economy ground to a halt and all—just how much the Bush crowd jammed up the gears of science, too. But President Obama reminded us of the fact yesterday when he lifted the Bush-era ban on funding for stem cell research. Obama used soaring language to mark the moment in a White House ceremony:
Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.
Way back in 2001, Bush limited research to 21 pre-existing stem cell lines, effectively halting the quest for more effective treatments of a host of diseases, ranging from Parkison’s to diabetes. Bush professed concern with “fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.” Obama’s perspective is quite a bit different: “We will harness the power of science to achieve or goals.”
But Obama did more than lift the research ban yesterday. In a memo to agency heads he broadly signaled an end to the era of thoughtless science bashing.
MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES
SUBJECT: Scientific Integrity
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.
It’s like oxygen rushing into choked lungs.
During its eight-year reign, the Bush White House teamed up with congressional Republicans to undermine on all manner of scientific progress—just to score cheap political points with an increasingly narrow slice of the electorate. There was Terri Schiavo, of course. But there was also the less sexy gutting of the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budgets. The routine tampering with research findings for political purposes, even on firmly established matters like racial disparities in health care. The millions poured into abstinence-only sex education—a faith-based science long ago proven not only ineffectual, but harmful. And the bizarre refusal to acknowledge a global scientific consensus on climate change, among other absurdities. The list was long enough to prompt Surgeon General Richard Carmona to resign in anger back in 2006.
The maddening irony was that the Republicans gained so little politically from this zealotry: Remember the Michael J. Fox/Rush Limbaugh fight of the 2004 elections? Fox, who has Parkinson’s Disease, campaigned against the stem-cell research funding ban, targeting its congressional supporters in TV ads. He dove into Missouri’s tight Senate race, pointing out GOP incumbent Jim Talent’s support for the ban. That prompted an outraged Limbaugh to mock Fox as “off his medication”—a reminder that Rush’s recent mania is part of a long-standing act—and now former Sen. Talent is watching Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s star rise.
The Family Research Council decried Obama’s move yesterday as an abandonment of “proper moral restraints.” Whatever. Here’s hoping folks like FRC and Rush get lots more to complain about over the next eight years, while the rest of us catch up with the 21st century.