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Science and its proper role

Science is making a comeback in the Obama administration, everybody says. It is getting back its proper role. But what is the proper role?

One signal that science is ascending was the appointment of Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Another was the designation of Steve Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist from California, as secretary of energy.

The Bush administration has often been accused of putting science down. Administration officials supposedly overruled scientists or even altered their findings.

If they did that, it was wrong. No question about it. But maybe they did it because under various laws they had no choice if they wanted to follow a policy they considered wiser than what scientists advised.

Under some federal laws ó the Endangered Species Act is one example ó things have to be done once a scientific determination has been made that a species is threatened or endangered. But what if the required actions themselves are against the public interest, more broadly defined?

When the laws or the courts donít offer a reasonable compromise between what science and other considerations demand, what choice do officials have other than to ignore the science? And if they canít ignore it, they might be tempted to steer it in a certain direction.

If science says the dams on the Snake River have to come out in order to save certain fish runs, but if taking out the dams wastes billions of dollars and increases unemployment and the price of electricity in a big part of the Northwest, a responsible federal official might well conclude that the science has to be ignored for now.

That is not being hostile to science; it is acting responsibly in the public interest.

Science, properly done, is invaluable in informing public officials and the rest of us. But it cannot be put in the position of deciding public actions without consideration of everything else.

We can only hope that the Obama appointees in various agencies will keep this in mind. (hh)

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