Politics vs. the Integrity of Research
By U.S. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN and PETER LIKINS
Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 2, 2005
Global warming is happening now.
Many of us can intuit that from our personal experience. And we have come to know it the same way people learned that E=mc2: based on compelling scientific evidence, arrived at through objective, transparent scientific inquiry.
In this case, science is sounding a drumbeat of hard evidence to reinforce what we feel in our everyday lives -- our world is getting warmer. Median temperatures are rising. Ice caps are melting. Glaciers are in what geologists call "catastrophic retreat." Weather patterns are changing. And a large body of evidence shows that all those changes may be linked to the greenhouse gases created by human activity, which are accumulating in our atmosphere.
We need solutions to the problems caused by global warming, and to find the solutions, the government and scientific establishments need to work together. Each possesses unique abilities to help the other: The government can finance research and use the results to shape public policy; scientists can discover new truths.
But each must be able to rely on the other, or the partnership will not work. Scientists must be allowed to conduct their work unfettered by political or commercial pressures. (We have only to look at the failures of biological science in the former Soviet Union to understand the scientific and political costs of interference.) And the government cannot craft sound policy unless it can count on scientists to provide accurate data on which to base its actions. (The consequences of spinning or withholding facts can be seen in the lives lost to disease because tobacco companies withheld evidence from Congress and the Food and Drug Administration.)
When members of Congress recently began pressuring scientists who have offered evidence of global warming, they broke that crucial covenant. The chairman and another member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in an apparent effort to discredit the findings reported by three distinguished scientists from respected universities, demanded that the scientists send Congress all of the scientific data they have gathered in their entire careers, even data on studies unrelated to their publications on global warming.
One of the scientists is Malcolm K. Hughes of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, who has published 120 research papers since 1965. The study of tree rings, or dendrochronology, can provide insights into current and past
environmental processes and conditions, including the history of fires and what isotopes were present in the atmosphere at particular times and places in history.
Our oldest living trees and preserved wood from even older trees serve as geological record keepers for climate fluctuations; by studying them, dendrochronologists can begin to discern patterns in global temperatures over many centuries. Accumulating evidence indicates that the climate in which we live is the warmest in the long
lives of many of those old trees.
The tree-ring data match other information about long-term climate change, like the data from ice cores drilled out of ancient glaciers. All the studies point to the same conclusion: Our average global temperature is slowly increasing.
Professor Hughes's many papers reporting his results, including those on climate change, were reviewed by independent -- and often anonymous -- panels of scientists before publication, in the peer-review system that drives modern science. That system, the best mechanism yet found to ensure sound scientific results, also
evaluated the work of Michael E. Mann of the University of Virginia and Raymond S. Bradley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- the other two climate researchers whose data the members of Congress demanded.
The message sent by the Congressional committee to the three scientists was not subtle: Publish politically unpalatable scientific results and brace yourself for political retribution, which might include denial of the opportunity to compete for federal funds.
Statements that such requests are routine ring hollow: Asking for scientific information may be routine, but asking for all of the data produced in a scientist's career is highly irregular. It represents a kind of intimidation, which threatens the relationship between science and public policy. That behavior must not be tolerated.
As we confront the reality of climate change, public-policy makers, including members of Congress, must have access to reliable data, data untrammeled by political or commercial interference or censorship. They must have guidance from experts who understand the complexities of the problem and all of its plausible solutions. Only on the foundation of sound science can they make sound
public policy on global warming.
That principle goes far beyond the issue of climate change. The government relies on scientists for help in developing policies to improve the health and welfare of our citizens and to promote the economic development of our nation. Scientists -- and the universities where many of them work -- rely on governmental agencies like the National Science Foundation to establish valid and transparent mechanisms to evaluate research proposals and to give financial support to the most deserving. All Americans benefit from that relationship; we must insist that it continue undamaged.
In his seminal Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski wrote a passage that rings true even after half a century: "By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are of course oddly virtuous. ... Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. ... But in a world in which state and dogma seem
always either to threaten or cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks this rule ... is ignored."
By "oddly virtuous," we believe that Bronowski meant "of particularly high integrity." And that quality is precisely what must be protected -- not doubted or threatened -- for the sake of every citizen.
John McCain is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona. Peter Likins is President of the University of Arizona.
Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education