Last week ScienceInsider reported that questions on the Big Bang and evolution were removed from the chapter of Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 that covers public attitudes about science and technology. This reporting has prompted complaints and concerns on science-oriented blogs about the decision to remove this content. It’s an understandable debate, and I commend Matt Nisbet’s review of the relevant issues behind why the question for evolution may have been removed.
But the scuffle over the questions removed has buried the problems associated with the process. Comments from an Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesman were critical of the last-minute edit, done after a draft had been transmitted to the White House. The ScienceInsider article made it easy for me to infer that the National Science Board had somehow made the change without letting the White House know. To me that’s a much bigger problem than the merits of the removed content. So I asked if my inference was accurate. According to the response posted, it isn’t. Unfortunately what actually happened – that nobody reviewing the document caught the specific change – isn’t much better.
This explanation is quite plausible (and quite disappointing), since Indicators was officially released in January and had a big public rollout at the recent AAAS meeting in February. The nature of the change didn’t attract attention until April? I think that says more about the audience for the public perception portion of Indicators, but raising a stink nearly three months after the report was released suggests that it wasn’t only the people who reviewed Indicators that dropped the ball.