Science, Politics Collide in Election Year
by MATT CRENSON
With more than 4,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners, having signed a statement opposing the Bush administration’s use of scientific advice, this election year is seeing a new development in the uneasy relationship between science and politics.
In the past, individual scientists and science organizations have occasionally piped up to oppose specific federal policies such as Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense plan. But this is the first time that a broad spectrum of the scientific community has expressed opposition to a president’s overall science policy.
Last November, President Bush gave physicist Richard Garwin a medal for his “valuable scientific advice on important questions of national security.” Just three months later, Garwin signed the statement condemning the administration for misusing, suppressing and distorting scientific advice.
Scientists’ feud with the Bush administration, building for almost four years, has intensified this election year. The White House has sacked prominent scientists from presidential advisory committees, science advocacy groups have released lengthy catalogues of alleged scientific abuses by the administration and both sides have traded accusations at meetings and in the pages of research journals.
“People are shocked by what’s going on,” said Kurt Gottfried, a Cornell University physicist and chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been in the vanguard of the campaign against the administration’s science policy. Although generally not political, the group — which advocates for use of accurate scientific information in policymaking — has occasionally taken liberal positions, such as opposition to nuclear weapons.
Administration officials dismiss the scientists’ concerns as misguided and accuse them of playing politics — of attempting to undermine Bush administration policies by claiming they are based on bad science.
“I don’t like to see science exploited for political purposes, and I think that’s happening here,” presidential science adviser John H. Marburger III said in a telephone interview.
Some scientists critical of the Bush administration make no secret that they would like to see the president defeated; four dozen Nobel laureates have endorsed John Kerry for president.
But signers of the declaration include scientists with ties to both Republican and Democratic administrations: Lewis Branscomb, a Harvard University professor, headed the federal Bureau of Standards in the Nixon administration. Russell Train was director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Presidents Nixon and Ford and supported George H. W. Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign. Physicists Neal Lane and John Gibbons were both science advisers to President Clinton.
Scientists’ disapproval of Bush has not gone unnoticed by the Kerry campaign. This week the Democrats used the third anniversary of Bush’s decision to limit federal funding for stem cell research as an opportunity to question the president’s commitment to science.
“At this very moment, some of our most pioneering cures and treatments are right at our fingertips, but because of the stem cell ban, they remain beyond our reach,” Kerry said in an Aug. 7 radio address, two days before the anniversary.
Incorporating science into government has always been a sensitive proposition, given the vast differences between them.
Scientists collect evidence and conduct experiments to arrive at an objective description of reality — to describe the world as it is rather than as we might want it to be.
Government, on the other hand, is about anything but objective truth. It deals with gray areas, competing values, the allocation of limited resources. It is conducted by debate and negotiation. Far from striving for ultimate truths, it seeks compromises that a majority can live with.
When these conflicting paradigms come together, disagreements are inevitable.
For example, when a panel of experts, by a 28-0 vote, declared a drug safe for over-the-counter sales in December, they expected the Food and Drug Administration to approve it for nonprescription use soon thereafter.
But six months later the agency disagreed, citing a lack of data about the safety of the drug for 11- to 14-year-old girls.
Three physicians on the FDA advisory panel protested in an editorial published by the New England Journal of Medicine, claiming the agency was distorting the scientific evidence for political reasons.
The drug in question: a morning-after contraceptive known as Plan B.
“A treatment for any other condition, from hangnail to headache to heart disease, with a similar record of safety and efficacy would be approved quickly,” the protesting panel members wrote.
The federal government relies on hundreds of scientific and technical panels for advice on a wide range of policy issues. Advisers range from wildlife biologists who provide expertise on endangered species to physicists who help guide the development of new weaponry.
Incorporating scientific advice into policymaking involves an implied contract of trust between government officials and scientists. Scientists trust that their advice will be weighed honestly, without attempts to distort, deny or refute it. Government officials trust that scientists will not inject personal opinions or a political agenda into their advice.
From time to time, both sides are accused of breaking that trust. In July, for example, a panel of experts sharply lowered the recommended cholesterol level for patients at risk of heart disease. Consumer groups challenged the recommendation, pointing out that some panel members have financial ties to companies that make cholesterol-lowering drugs.
In the larger dispute, scientists charge that the Bush administration has violated its side of the bargain in two ways: By manipulating scientific information to suit political purposes and by applying a political litmus test to membership on scientific advisory committees.
The conflict usually centers on scientific advice involving politically contentious subjects such as reproductive health, drug policy and the environment.
Climate scientists, for example, complain they have been frustrated in their attempts to include full and accurate information about global warming in official government reports — a charge the administration denies.
The administration also finds itself at odds with many medical researchers over use of embryonic stem cells. President Bush, concerned that harvesting the cells requires the destruction of human embryos, decided in 2001 to restrict federally funded research to a few dozen existing cell lines. But medical researchers, believing stem cells offer a key to curing many debilitating diseases, say the decision severely hampers their work.
“I don’t get the sense that science was particularly part of the decision making,” said Elizabeth Blackburn, a University of California, San Francisco biologist.
Marburger, Bush’s science adviser, sees it differently: “The really important questions here are ethical questions; they’re not science questions.”
Democrats further politicized stem cell research when they invited Ron Reagan, son of the late president, to speak at their convention in Boston this summer.
“We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology,” Reagan said in his speech, urging the audience to “cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research.”
In any argument people will emphasize information that supports their position and ignore contrary evidence, said Roger Pielke, Jr., a science policy expert at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He calls the strategy “cherrypicking” and considers it a legitimate debating tactic.
“That is different than actually going out and manufacturing or altering the scientific process in a way that guarantees the result will agree with your point of view,” Pielke said.
Bush’s critics say his administration is doing just that when it screens scientific advisers based on their political views. They argue that when it comes to science, professional qualifications should trump party affiliation.
Blackburn became a cause celebre for many scientists who felt her dismissal from the President’s Council on Bioethics in February was retribution for her disagreements with the administration over stem cells and other issues.
Gerald T. Keusch, associate dean for global health at Boston University, says he resigned as director of the National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Center last year after the administration shot down 19 of his 26 picks for advisory positions.
He said one candidate was turned down because she had served on the board of a nonprofit organization dedicated to international reproductive health, another because she supported a woman’s right to an abortion.
“I was hopping mad,” Keusch said.
Dr. D.A. Henderson, a biological weapons expert, said that when President Bush’s father chose him for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, it didn’t matter that he was a Democrat and that his wife was president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. All that counted was his expertise.
“I can’t imagine that happening today,” said Henderson, although he has worked in the last three administrations and now advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Marburger dismisses such notions: “I can say from personal experience that the accusation of a litmus test that must be met before someone can serve on an advisory panel is preposterous,” he said in an April response to the Union of Concerned Scientists statement.
As proof, he offered himself. He’s a Democrat.
Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for forwarding this article. –BL