Politics in the lab hits US scientific integrity
GAITHERSBURG, MD. — In theory, science is supposed to be cold, analytical, dispassionate - and studiously apolitical. But in the real world of competing demands for federal research dollars, savvy scientists of all disciplines - from cognitive psychologists running rats through mazes to nuclear physicists operating massive particle accelerators - recognize that a certain amount of political meddling in their research by policymakers in the executive branch and Congress is to be expected.
However, there are limits - limits the Bush administration has frequently disregarded by imposing stringent political controls on a broad variety of federal scientific programs and activities. This has raised acute concern in the American scientific community that the administration's drive to stamp its conservative values on science isn't just affecting policy decisions, but undermining the integrity of the US research infrastructure itself.
Playing politics with science is nothing new in Washington, of course. President Nixon shut down his White House science office because he didn't like the advice he was getting on arms control and the supersonic transport. Nevertheless, several science-policy experts argue that no presidency has been more calculating and ideological than the Bush administration in setting political parameters for science. President Bush's blunt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and his decision restricting stem-cell research are only the most obvious and widely publicized examples of what has become a broader pattern across the administration.
At the same time, the president's chief science adviser, atomic physicist John Marburger, who is largely well-regarded in the scientific community, reportedly has very little substantive access to Bush and his senior aides, and his office has been moved out of the White House complex.
Some examples of the Bush administration's interference with science include:
• The removal from a National Cancer Institute website of a scientific analysis concluding that abortions do not increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. That move, in November 2002, contradicted the broad medical consensus, and members of Congress protested the change. In response, the NCI updated its website to include the conclusion of a panel of experts that induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.
• Dropping a leading addiction expert from the University of New Mexico, Dr. William Miller, from consideration for membership on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse after an administration aide quizzed him about whether he opposed abortion ("no") and had voted for Bush ("no").
• The elimination of the section on global warming in a comprehensive Environmental Protection Agency report on the environment last June. EPA officials decided to eliminate the section on climate change after an earlier draft prompted the White House to demand major revisions.
The politicization of US science has drawn close attention from leading scientific journals. Bush administration interference with federal scientific advisory committees as well as peer-review panels for research grants is an "epidemic of politics," editorialized Science, the influential weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "What is unusual about the current epidemic is not that the Bush administration examines candidates for compatibility with its 'values.' It's how deep the practice cuts, in particular, the way it now invades areas once immune to this kind of manipulation," wrote editor in chief Donald Kennedy.
Prominent Democrats in Congress have expressed frustration over the mixing of politics with science.
"I think what they've done is unprecedented," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee. "Even prominent Republicans who served under Presidents Reagan, Ford, and Nixon are alarmed.... Leading scientists both inside and outside the administration have said politics is getting into previously protected areas."
Mr. Waxman's committee issued a report in August concluding that the administration's political interference with science has led to "misleading statements by the president, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered websites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications, and the gagging of scientists."
The report - which can be seen at www.house.gov/reform/min/politicsandscience - alleges abuses in 21 areas ranging from abstinence-only sex education to breast cancer, drinking water, food safety, global warming, prescription-drug advertising, stem-cell research, and workplace safety.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan dismissed the report as "riddled with distortions, inaccuracies, and omissions." And, he said, "This administration looks at the facts, and reviews the best available science based on what's right for the American people. The only one who is playing politics about science is Congressman Waxman."
Several senior-science policy specialists say that while the Waxman report has a partisan tone, most of its major points are well taken. Neal Lane, who served as director of the National Science Foundation and then as presidential science adviser during the Clinton administration, observed: "It's always the case in the White House ... that science is one of a number of sets of issues that a president, a political policymaker, has to consider when they're making decisions. Sometimes the decision goes in a way that the science would not suggest. But there's such a long list of egregious actions taken by this administration that I think it essentially gives a false impression of what the science really is and strongly suggests the administration simply doesn't care to find out."
Prof. Lewis Branscomb, a science policy expert at Harvard and former director of the National Bureau of Standards under Nixon, notes that on the question of stacking federal scientific advisory committees, "I'm not aware that [Nixon] ever hand-picked ideologues to serve on advisory committees, or dismissed from advisory committees very well-qualified people if he didn't like their views.... What's going on now is in many ways more insidious. It happens behind the curtain. I don't think we've had this kind of cynicism with respect to objective scientific advice since I've been watching government, which is quite a long time."
Perhaps the corrosive issue of political interference with science won't be crucial to Bush's reelection chances, but by undercutting the integrity of the scientific community, it may be crucial to the long-term quality of life not just in the US, but also in other countries around the world.
• Barton Reppert, a former Associated Press reporter and editor in Washington, New York, and Moscow, is a freelance science and technology writer.