Thursday, October 14, 2004
by John Mangels, Plain Dealer Science Writer
Nearly lost in the campaign clamor over Iraq, the economy and the presidential candidates' Vietnam service, many of the nation's scientists are charging that the Bush administration has misused science to advance its political agenda.
More than 5,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences, have signed a letter calling on the president to end "the distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends." Some of the most prominent researchers, Republican and Democrat, recently formed a so-called "527" advocacy group to alert the public about their concerns.
The scientists cite such examples as censoring government reports on climate change and global warming, disregarding scientific assessments that raised doubt about Iraq's nuclear weapons capability, and favoring industry representatives over qualified scientists on government advisory panels.
"This level of political interference in the scientific advisory process, right from the White House in some cases, is unprecedented," said Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. "In many cases they've shown an unwillingness to let facts get in the way of what they thought was right."
Krauss, an author and lecturer who champions science literacy causes, has invited three Nobel laureates to speak in Cleveland Friday at a public seminar called "The Bush Administration and Scientific Integrity."
Representatives of the administration and the president's sre-election campaign have dismissed the scientists' complaints as either misinterpretation of the facts or partisan carping. They insist that Bush is pro-science.
"I can't see real difference between this administration and other administrations in the interface between science and politics," John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an interview with Plain Dealer reporters and editors this summer.
"I do think it's important to listen to outstanding scientists when they have concerns," Marburger said. "What I hear are a lot of fairly disconnected things. The big objection I have towards this sort of sweeping conclusion . . . is I think it's sort of a conspiracy theory approach to everything going wrong in science."
In a comment that some participants at a recent Washington, D.C., science issues forum found threatening, lobbyist Bob Walker, representing the Bush campaign, said scientists who become political activists will reap political consequences.
"A lot of scientists who come out of the academic community come out of institutions that have a heavily liberal bias," said Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee, which has jurisdiction over the government's science-related agencies and budgets. "I don't doubt that their politics and so forth reflects not only their judgment about science, but sometimes their personal politics inside of academia. Science does itself a disservice when it mixes those two things in a way that can engender a push-back at some point."
Though some of the scientists calling for reform have declared support for Democratic challenger John Kerry, several insist that their concerns transcend partisan politics. They also stress that their numbers include Republicans and Democrats, and people who in the past have shunned overtly political causes.
"This happens to be a Republican administration. I like to think that we'd be doing exactly the same thing if it was a Democratic administration," said Krauss, who has been a consultant to the Kerry campaign on science issues and is a founding member of the new 527 organization Scientists and Engineers for Change.
"Science isn't Republican or Democrat," Krauss said. "You can interpret it. You can say other issues are more important. But one has to be honest. This is about scientific integrity."
Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for physics, said he followed scientific principles to conclude that the Bush administration is mishandling science in its policy-making.
"The more aware you are of your prejudices, the more objective the experiment must be, with all kinds of built-in safety features that prevent you from tilting the pinball machine," Lederman said via e-mail. "I want to do everything possible to avoid a second term for Bush. Having confessed to my bias, I had to insist that we have a very strong case. And I have a rich choice of examples of the 'policy first, then science' methodology in this administration."
The two examples Bush's critics cite most involve stem cells and Iraq's nuclear situation.
When Bush announced in 2001 that he would allow federal funding only for research that used existing colonies of embryonic stem cells rather than creating new ones, citing ethical and moral concerns, he said there were more than 60 such colonies, an adequate supply. There are only about 20, and researchers say some of those have problems such as contamination.
Regarding Iraq, Bush built his case for a pre-emptive war in part on that country's nuclear threat, claiming along with other senior administration officials that Iraq had attempted to obtain 60,000 aluminum tubes used in the process of enriching uranium to weapons-grade quality. That assessment came from the CIA.
The president's critics say he and other senior officials had access to but disregarded reports from technical experts at two of the government's own nuclear weapons laboratories, the State Department's intelligence branch, and a consultant for the International Atomic Energy Agency, all of whom disagreed with the CIA and said the aluminum tubes, which Iraq apparently never got, were intended for short-range artillery rockets, not for making nuclear bombs.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group, contends those examples are part of a broad and systemic pattern by the Bush administration of ignoring, manipulating or censoring scientific information that clashes with the president's policies. UCS has issued two detailed reports this year documenting its claims, and is responsible for the letter signed to date by more than 5,000 scientists.
A report last year by the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform, commissioned by Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, had similar findings.
"The Bush administration repeatedly suppressed, distorted or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals," the committee wrote. "These actions go far beyond the traditional influence presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies and compromise the integrity of scientific policy-making.
Marburger, the president's science adviser, countered with his own report defending the administration's use of scientific information and addressing the Union of Concerned Scientists' charges point by point.
Copyright 2004 cleveland.comPosted by jmellicant at October 15, 2004 11:21 AM