As Barack Obama prepares to leave office, Nature examines the scientific highs and lows of his presidency. Read the other stories in this series about his policies on biomedicine, space and climate change.
Many researchers who watched Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 were thrilled by his pledge to “restore science to its rightful place”. But scientists and legal scholars say that, in many ways, Obama has failed to live up to that lofty promise.
In general, government researchers have enjoyed more freedom — and endured less political meddling — than they did under the previous president, George W. Bush. Bush’s administration was accused of muzzling or ignoring scientists on subjects ranging from stem cells to climate change.
In March 2009, Obama instructed agencies to develop policies to reduce political interference and increase transparency about the research used in policy decisions. And when the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) surveyed federal researchers in 2015, most said that their agency adhered to its scientific-integrity policy.
But critics say that Obama’s White House has not shied away from exerting political influence over science.
In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a proposal to the White House that would strengthen controls on ozone pollution, based on guidance from its scientific advisers. But Obama directed the agency to withdraw the plan, citing the cost of the stricter limits at a time when the economy was still recovering from a recession.
And that same year, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s finding that the emergency contraceptive ‘Plan B One-Step’ was safe to dispense over the counter for all women and girls.
In both cases, science eventually won out: the EPA approved stronger ozone standards in 2015, …