March 14, 2005

Bush Admin. vs the "Elitists" - Ideology trumps science

Loose lips defend leaky ships.
"The president makes policy decisions based on what the best policies for the country are, not politics. People who suggest otherwise are ill-informed."
These somewhat cranky comments came from White House spokesman Ken Lisaius when pressed for a response to suggestions by scientists that the administration is ignoring consensus regarding global climate change.

Dr. John Marburger, the president’s science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy was a bit more on point. In answer to a direct challenge from a climatologist he insisted that
"This Administration does not question the existence of climate change, nor does it deny a link between climate change and human activity."
The problem, though, is not whether Marburger’s statement is accurate (there’s reason to be skeptical). The problem is that, despite Lisaius’ assertions, those "who suggest otherwise" these days are often the most well-informed.

The integrity of the Bush administration’s approach to issues of science policy is taking broadsides on several scientific fronts. At the recent annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings speakers worried over R&D and education budget cuts, and discussed the diminishing appreciation for input from scientists. A University of Michigan professor concerned about instances of administration disregard for environmental research said
"In previous administrations, scientists were always at the table when regulations were being developed. Science never had the last voice, but it had a voice."
There are holes below the waterline. In February of 2004 the Union of Concerned Scientists published a list of 60 or so "Nobel laureates, leading medical experts, former federal agency directors, and university chairs and presidents" who wanted to express their concerns over the Bush White House’s failed science policy. After leaving the list open for a year they have accumulated over 6000 signatures.

The discontent stems directly from political intrusion into the scientific process. And the intrusion stems directly from an attitude that ideology trumps data. This administration has on many occasions replaced established scientific consensus with questionable studies that support political doctrine. Information on the National Cancer Institute website was changed to include spurious "research" which suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer. After an outcry from scientists and politicians the routine update (as it was described by Dr. Marburger) was removed. "Plan B," a morning-after pill that is legal in 33 other countries, was recommended for approval by the head of the FDA’s Office of New Drugs, agency scientists, over 70 science associations, and an administration advisory committee. The approval was reversed.

Even one of the administration’s own studies - commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences - was replaced by an American Petroleum Institute funded report when the original actually confirmed current consensus about fossil fuel influences on climate warming. When disgruntled staffers at the EPA brought attention to this problem the appropriate research was left out altogether. Russell Train, EPA Administrator for Presidents Nixon and Ford, said:
"I can state categorically that there never was such White House intrusion into the business of the EPA during my tenure. The EPA was established as an independent agency in the executive branch, and so it should remain."
Water is gushing into the hold. And Marburger can’t seem to stop it. He has released a response to criticisms from the UCS and has participated in discussions geared toward deflecting negative press. But he is either overwhelmed, or substantially on board with the administration (the latter appears more likely) in its heavy-handed approach to the politicization of science. Scientists and officials resign or are replaced with White House sympathizers. Staffers grumble at being given research "objectives." Whistleblowers sing. And worry has gone international. Train writes,"Government meddling has reached such a level that European scientists are voicing concerns that Bush may not merely be undermining U.S. dominance in sciences, but global research as well."The ship is foundering. Respect for science in the U.S. is dwindling within and without. It’s time for this administration to emulate those of the past. Stand tall at the rail, bark orders and look decisive, and let those who know the waters man the helm once again.


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