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Bush's "war on science" through the microscope

Ehsan Masood
24 January 2006

America's scientists are at war with their own government. A rare, perhaps even an unprecedented spectacle – and a shocking one. Why? Because scientists are meant to embody measured rationality, at war only with whatever problem they are trying to solve. Nor are they easily disposed to voicing strong opinions, as I discovered during my time editing the opinion pages of New Scientist magazine. Such is the nature of scientific evidence that writers felt that any one opinion needed to be balanced by an opposing point of view.

So I am intrigued as dozens of Nobel laureates and scores of professors from elite universities mobilise against their government with the kind of anger more associated with environmental pressure-groups, religious organisations, or opposition political parties.

A petition signed by forty-nine Nobel laureates and 154 members of the National Academies of Science that says the Bush administration has "misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies" and distorted "scientific knowledge for partisan political ends" has gathered more than 6,000 signatories since its first publication in February 2004. The petition has been backed up by a torrent of media articles from scientists across the United States, as well as by vigorous polemics like Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, calling on President Bush to keep politics out of science. Such is the intensity and the strength of the message that lawmakers have been successfully lobbied to introduce a new law: the "Restore Scientific Integrity to Federal Research and Policymaking Act".

Why are scientists – from silver-haired, bow-tied mandarins to spiky young guns at the cutting edge of every discipline – so agitated? Since his first, disputed election in November 2000, many of America's scientists have discovered that George W Bush's administration has a predilection (more so than previous governments) for tampering with the work that they do. For many, the discovery that politics might be mixing it with science has come as something of a shock. They don’t like it, and they are doing their best to have it stopped.

The campaign claims

What shape does this political interference take? The most commonly cited examples are twofold.

The first charge is that scientists being considered for appointment to policymaking advisory committees have been asked for their voting records – so-called "political litmus tests".

Scientists based at universities tend to dominate the top professional bodies such as the National Academies of Science, from which members of government advisory committees are often chosen. There is a widely-held belief inside Republican circles that most university scientists are instinctively liberal and that they tend to vote Democrat.

Because of this, the Bush administration is keen to vary the political mix of such committees, and one way of achieving this aim is to ask candidates for their voting records. Scientists counter by arguing that it shouldn’t matter whether a scientist votes Democrat, or is pro-choice, because beliefs and politics have nothing to do with their ability to do good science, or to make decisions based on scientific evidence.

The second allegation of political interference is that the government's scientific reports and website materials on scientific themes are being written in ways that reflect Bush administration politics. This is particularly so in the areas of public health and environmental protection – even if the balance of scientific evidence contradicts a stated administration political position, the evidence is ignored.

The controversy over interference came to a head in August 2003 when the Democratic congressman Henry Waxman published Politics and Science in the Bush Administration, a report that provided specific examples of the administration's intrusion on science. Three are representative of the arguments presented. First, Waxman's report found that the department of the interior had been ignoring the advice of the US Fish and Wildlife Service about possible impacts on wildlife if drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were to be expanded.

Second, the website of the US government's National Cancer Institute was found to have said that women who have abortions may have an increased risk of breast cancer – even though the balance of scientific evidence so far is that there is no such risk.

Third, and one of the most-frequently cited cases, was in the area of global warming. In 2002, the Bush administration opposed the reappointment of Robert Watson to the influential job of chairing an international panel of the world’s leading climate scientists (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC). Watson, a chief scientist in the World Bank, had been appointed during the Clinton years. More to the point, he was in overall charge of a landmark IPCC report published in 2000 in which scientists confirmed for the first time that the balance of evidence points to a human fingerprint in global warming – something that the Bush administration did not want to hear.

The Waxman report was followed up with a series of investigations from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Washington lobby group. The UCS is now working with Waxman and other Democrats in the House of Representatives to push through a new law. The "restore scientific integrity" act aims to create more distance between scientists and politicians, and to make decisions more transparent for the public.

A closer look

There is much in the scientists' case that has merit. Ultimately, carefully considered, broad-based and independent advice is an indispensable foundation for effective policymaking. If a government stacks an advisory committee with people who vote Republican, or who share the president's religious beliefs, this both represents a wasted opportunity and has the potential to contribute to bad decisions. It is self-defeating as well as a violation of principle.

But at the same time, two issues related to the scientists' actions are less cut and dried. First, I often wonder what kind of person would be so shocked to discover that political interference is alive and well inside science. Any Iraqi college-student will tell you that an administration at ease with regime change in a country almost 10,000 kilometres from the American homeland is hardly likely to think twice about poking its spanner in the workings of a scientific advisory committee.

Second, even if it is accepted that scientists are less politically savvy than people in other walks of life, there is an assumption underpinning the Union of Concerned Scientists campaign that many scientists themselves must surely find bewildering. This is the idea that a scientist's individual beliefs, behaviour or politics do not influence their decisions in areas where science meets public policy.

Ask any scientist, and he or she will tell you that a scientific consensus in public policy represents the state of knowledge at a given time. This consensus is often based on incomplete information: it can be a work in progress and is therefore subject to change.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

“The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation” (August 2005)

“British Muslims must stop the war”
(August 2005)

“The globalisation of Islamic Relief” (November 2005)

“Why the poorest countries need a WTO” (December 2005)

"Doing the maths " (January 2006)

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Three examples illustrate the point: the environmental risks of growing genetically-modified crops commercially; the risks to human health of burying radioactive waste deep underground; and the question of what should be a safe and acceptable level of radiation in the atmosphere.

Each is an area of current public-policy debate where the science is incomplete, and is likely to remain so for some years. Each too is an area where governments throughout the world need to make decisions today, using whatever little (and sometimes contradictory) information is available to them. They don't have the luxury of waiting for more thorough research, or a stronger consensus.

Where a decision must be arrived at using incomplete information, the opinions of those charged with making those decisions become more important. For example, if you are a scientist serving on a government advisory committee that needs to decide on acceptable pollution limits, it matters if you are a member of an SUV-owners' club, or if you are associated in any way with industry.

The Bush administration clearly went too far in asking candidates for advisory panels for their voting records. Similarly unforgivable are its attempts at pretending that the scientific consensus on global warming is a work of fiction. But not all of its efforts to mix science with politics have been so disastrous.

It has long been argued, for example, that there is too little developing-country scientific input in the work of the IPCC – particularly as developing countries stand to lose the most from the extreme weather that is likely to accompany climate change. One obvious solution is for a scientist from a developing country to head the IPCC. This has now happened, but it may not have happened without American political pressure. President Bush received much flak for opposing Bob Watson as chair of the IPCC. But in supporting the candidacy of Rajendra K Pachauri, one of India's leading climate scientists, the administration (perhaps unwittingly) showed how politics can be deployed in science to do the right – as well as the rightwing – thing.

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