That difference has to do with what American University professor Matthew Nisbet calls the “first and second premises” of science. The first premise is essentially the options that science lays out for politicians, and the second is the decision that a politician makes based on that evidence, plus his or her own ideological values. Obama clearly stated that his “faith” endows him a feeling of responsibility to pursue an area of research that could, one day, lead to treatments or cures for a number of debilitating diseases. For him, that sense of responsibility outweighs other ethical concerns about embryos and sanctity of life. According to Nisbet, “In stating the moral and religious reasoning behind his decision, Obama is no different than Bush, who was equally open about his normative framework; it’s just that Bush’s framework led to a very different policy outcome.”
Where the Bush administration found trouble, on the other hand, was in tampering with the first premise (i.e. the primary research) in areas such as climate change. Obama’s memorandum was designed to preclude such interference, but has, obviously, been taken to bear on the way his administration will deal with the second premise (i.e. decision-making).
It’s a critical that journalists sort out and explain such nuances. Doing so will lead to a better public understanding of where Obama is succeeding and failing with regard to science. The Christian Science Monitor and The Swamp, for instance, both pointed out that Obama has bucked scientists’ advice about acting more quickly on global warming and returning the western gray wolf to the endangered species list. And, as many outlets have already pointed out, there are still controversial decisions to be made about stem cells.
All said, it seems clear that Obama is trying to right by science in a way that his predecessor did not. But it is even clearer that, to succeed, the media must keep pressing him for more clarity about how science and values – combined – influence his decisions.