Classroom Discussion: Independent Science?

By Sean Cavanagh — March 09, 2009 2 min read
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Barack Obama is expected today to announce a new policy lifting restrictions on funding for human embryonic stem cell research. He will also issue a presidential memorandum meant to protect federal scientists and scientific research from political influence, according to reports.

I would argue that it’s the second action has the most potential for creating intriguing discussions in science classrooms. Bush administration officials were accused repeatedly of attempting to disregard or squash scientific findings and views that did not mesh with their political ideology, especially on issues such as climate change and environmental regulation. A recent series by the Philadelphia Inquirer delved into some of those issues.

Regardless of whether they agree with the Obama administration’s new policy, the topic offers teachers of science and other subjects with a springboard. What constitutes political interference into scientific research and science policy? Critics of the Bush administration clearly believe the former president’s staff ignored science that didn’t support their political points of view and policies. Yet some conservatives have argued that the evidence supporting climate change is not as strong as the mainstream scientific community claims and that too little attention is paid to how controlling carbon emissions could hurt the economy. (A prominent expert panel has concluded that it’s clear that global warming is occurring and there’s a “very high confidence” that humans are contributing to it.)

These topics could merit discussion in science or social studies classes. Why do federal scientists need to be guarded against political interference, or do they? Would such a policy in any way make it more difficult for a political leader—Democrat, Republican, Independent—more difficult to govern? What if a federal scientist puts forward a conclusion that is later called into question, not only by policymakers, but other scientists?

Many scientists were disappointed when President Bush, when battles over evolution in the states were running hot, appeared to say that he supported having both evolution and intelligent design taught in classrooms. The vast majority of scientists do not regard intelligent design as science. Neither did the president’s own science adviser, as the above story notes. During debates over the teaching of evolution, many scientists often voice frustration that the public not only fails to grasp the tenets of Darwin’s theory, but also seems confused about the rules and principles of science, and how scientists go about their work.

I haven’t yet seen any comments from Obama today on his new policy, but it’s safe to assume that his goals are broader than the policy itself. He seems to want to change the public’s perception of the role and status of scientists. A teacher might ask: To what extent do presidents, through the bully pulpit, have the power to shape the public’s, and student’s understanding of what science is, and what the rules of science are?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.