ScientificAmerican.com, 26 April 2004
The White House bends science to its will
By The Editors of Scientific American
STANDING UP for science--or stepping on it?
Starting in the 1930s, the Soviets spurned genetics in favor of Lysenkoism, a fraudulent theory of heredity inspired by Communist ideology. Doing so crippled agriculture in the U.S.S.R. for decades. You would think that bad precedent would have taught President George W. Bush something. But perhaps he is no better at history than at science.
In February his White House received failing marks in a statement signed by 62 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, 19 recipients of the National Medal of Science, and advisers to the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. It begins, "Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States of America the world's most powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy. Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences.... The administration of George W. Bush has, however, disregarded this principle."
Doubters of that judgment should read the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that accompanies the statement, "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making" (available at www.ucsusa.org). Among the affronts that it details: The administration misrepresented the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and other experts on climate change. It meddled with the discussion of climate change in an Environmental Protection Agency report until the EPA eliminated that section. It suppressed another EPA study that showed that the administration's proposed Clear Skies Act would do less than current law to reduce air pollution and mercury contamination of fish. It even dropped independent scientists from advisory committees on lead poisoning and drug abuse in favor of ones with ties to industry.
Let us offer more examples of our own. The Department of Health and Human Services deleted information from its Web sites that runs contrary to the president's preference for "abstinence only" sex education programs. The Office of Foreign Assets Control made it much more difficult for anyone from "hostile nations" to be published in the U.S., so some scientific journals will no longer consider submissions from them. The Office of Management and Budget has proposed overhauling peer review for funding of science that bears on environmental and health regulations--in effect, industry scientists would get to approve what research is conducted by the EPA.
None of those criticisms fazes the president, though. Less than two weeks after the UCS statement was released, Bush unceremoniously replaced two advocates of human embryonic stem cell research on his advisory Council on Bioethics with individuals more likely to give him a hallelujah chorus of opposition to it.
Blind loyalists to the president will dismiss the UCS report because that organization often tilts left--never mind that some of those signatories are conservatives. They may brush off this magazine's reproofs the same way, as well as the regular salvos launched by California Representative Henry A. Waxman of the House Government Reform Committee [see Insights] and maybe even Arizona Senator John McCain's scrutiny for the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But it is increasingly impossible to ignore that this White House disdains research that inconveniences it.