The New Scopes Trials

The New Scopes Trials

This article can be found on the web at The Nation


[from the March 8, 2004 issue]

What if the research agenda of the University of Texas College of Natural Sciences were drafted not by the professors who actually conduct the studies but by, say, the alumni who funded the department? We might end up with research on the stickiness of Mr. Big's brand of glue instead of the development of an AIDS vaccine. Luckily, most research universities don't work that way. The federal government, however, occasionally does. In the Bush Administration, when the religious right or big business weighs in on a matter of science, politics usually prevails. So while this President may lack the powerful eloquence of William Jennings Bryan, in the world of science he's the modern equivalent of the Great Orator defeating the infidels of evolution in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Scientific panels and committees have proven especially susceptible to political manipulation by the White House. In one revealing case, Bush & Co. intervened at the precise moment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was set to consider once again lowering acceptable blood-lead levels in response to new scientific evidence. The Administration rejected nominee Bruce Lanphear and dumped panel member Michael Weitzman, both of whom previously advocated lowering the legal limit. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appointed William Banner–who had testified on behalf of lead companies in poison-related litigation–and Joyce Tsuji, who had worked for a consulting firm whose clients include a lead smelter. (She later withdrew.) Banner and another appointee, Sergio Piomelli, were first contacted about serving on the committee not by a member of the Administration but by lead-industry representatives who appeared to be recruiting favorable committee members with the blessing of HHS officials.

The supposedly nonpartisan President's Council on Bioethics–a panel whose creation Bush announced during his much publicized stem-cell speech of August 2001–proved susceptible to a different arm of his political base, the far right. The council is the organization charged with leading America through the murky waters of cloning and other genetic research. But instead of appointing a calm voice to lead those difficult discussions, President Bush chose Leon Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist who opposed in vitro fertilization in the 1970s on the basis of Brave New World-esque fears of reproduction run amok and likes to refer to abortion as “feticide.” In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Kass lamented that today's young women live “the entire decade of their twenties–their most fertile years–neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely….” He is hostile to everything from “woman on the pill” to sex education and believes children of divorce are “maimed for love and intimacy.”

A similar case of politically inspired panel-stacking involved the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, which reviews research and makes suggestions on a range of public health policy issues. When advisory committee members came up for renewal, committee chair Dr. Thomas Burke was surprised to learn that fifteen of the panel's eighteen members were going to be replaced. In the past, HHS had asked Burke for a list of recommendations; this time, it had its own list, and Burke was not on it. The new panel included chemical company favorite Lois Swirsky Gold, who denies many of the links between pollutants and cancer, and Dennis Paustenbach, who testified for Pacific Gas & Electric in the real-life Erin Brockovich court case.

None of this should be surprising from an Administration that sees nothing wrong with conducting an ideological litmus test for potential scientific appointees. For example, William Miller, a nominee to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, was contacted by Secretary Thompson's office after he'd been asked to consider the appointment. The caller, according to Miller, asked whether he'd voted for President Bush. When he confessed that he had not, he was asked to explain himself, and did not receive a callback.

The scientific community has balked at these decisions and appointment practices. The American Public Health Association released an official policy statement in November 2002 that objected to “recent steps by government officials at the federal level to restructure key federal scientific and public health advisory committees by retiring the committees before their work is completed, removing or failing to reappoint qualified members, and replacing them with less scientifically qualified candidates and candidates with a clear conflict of interest. Such steps suggest an effort to inappropriately influence these committees.”

Science magazine published an editorial signed by ten prominent US scientists railing against Bush's appropriation of the nation's scientific advisory committees and panels for political purposes. One of those scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sees an eroding relationship between federal science agencies and the scientific community and fears that eventually scientific professionals will no longer trust crucial information gleaned from government research. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush White House, Goldman believes, has a “to the victor goes the spoils” approach to scientific research. She adds that “what they don't understand is that everybody hasn't done it that way. Science isn't 'the spoils.' Science isn't something to be politicized based on who's elected.”

But if there's one thing that's been obvious over the past three years of the Bush Administration, it's that nothing is out of bounds when Bush's electoral bases are involved. The federal government funds a quarter of the scientific research in this country. When a President starts appointing scientists as he does campaign staffers, we risk an era of Lysenkoism in America–when Soviet citizens were told (among other things) that acquired traits can be inherited. While Bush's supporters may giddily profit from such changes, it's the rest of us who lose out when science becomes another avenue for propaganda.

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