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Politics in the lab hits US scientific integrity

By Barton Reppert / January 6, 2004


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.

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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.