Still, despite press coverage of vocal opponents, there are Bush supporters among scientists
By Eugene Russo
RICHMOND, VA—If you've been following news coverage of how scientists plan to vote in this year's presidential election, you might be forgiven for thinking that many—if not most—are doing everything they can to unseat George Bush.
There's the Bush administration's stance on embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists say is too restrictive. And there's the scientific review process and the appointment process for those scientists who serve on committees. Speaking at an October 13 talk here at Virginia Commonwealth University sponsored by Scientists and Engineers for Change, Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach said that the administration has "put a political clamp" on the research enterprise with a "Soviet-style" handling of science policy. The group, many of whose members were among 48 Nobel Prize winners who signed a July letter supporting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for president, has been hosting such meetings around the country in which speakers express various anti-Bush sentiments. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have issued reports condemning how the Bush administration has tackled science.
But is science really united against Bush? It appears not, based on a look through publicly available records at www.opensecrets.org that suggest that a number of scientists and engineers have donated to the Bush campaign. But being conservative in the typically liberal environs of academia can be difficult, especially for younger, less established scientists, according to Bush supporter William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University.
"If you look around you, you'll see that you're surrounded basically by the power structure of the Democratic Party," Happer told The Scientist, noting that he's not worried what colleagues think of his views at this late stage of his career. His top concern for this election is the war on terrorism, which he believes Bush will handle much better than Kerry.
Assistant professor of physics David Casper at the University of California, Irvine, a Bush supporter, recalls one incident in which a conversation with a senior colleague and the colleague's wife turned to the 2000 presidential election. A disagreement quickly became an uncomfortable and heated debate. Casper's political leanings have relatively little to do with science policy, he said, though he lauded Bush's funding for education and the accountability and performance measures that have been implemented.
Happer, a member of the Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Panel, suggested that the charges from the UCS and Nobel Laureates are largely overblown and out of context. He said that some scientists, who've garnered a sort of "deity complex" based on their scientific achievements, take their role to be akin to Plato's "philosopher kings," wise advisors who would tell citizens how to live. "They're extremely upset when the Bush administration doesn't call in the philosopher kings to be told what to do," he said.
"You are hearing a subsection," said Arizona State University infectious disease researcher and Bush supporter Charles Arntzen of the recent criticisms from scientists. "You are hearing a group that has an axe to grind." Arntzen said he believes that the more liberal fields, like biomedicine, typically generate complaints.
Richard Barke, an associate professor of public policy at Georgia Tech who specializes in science and technology, along with colleagues, and funded by the Department of Energy, has conducted as-yet unpublished surveys of scientists that support the stereotype: biologists tended to be more ideologically liberal than physicists, engineers, and to some degree chemists, as well as more cautious about imposing risk on people without their consent. Of the Nobel Laureates who signed the Kerry endorsement, 12 won their prize for chemistry, 17 won it for medicine, and 19 won it for physics.
Arntzen suggested that this election cycle's complaints from scientists are neither surprising nor unprecedented, but are unusual in their intensity. Noting that many scientists are part of a high financial stakes biotechnology constituency, he attributes the elevated level of criticism to the fact that science has become more of a big business, with more grants and jobs on the line.
A member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Arntzen said that many of the complaints from the UCS and others involve little more than the minutiae of science policy—e.g., whether or not an individual should serve on an advisory panel. More important issues should be the focus, he said—for example, whether the Department of Homeland Security is getting too much funding, or whether nanotechnology is not getting enough.
And other critics write off the scientists' activities as the re-emerging partisan politics of traditionally liberal university departments. Former Congressman Robert Walker, who spoke on behalf of the Bush campaign at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science policy debate, said he does not see scientists' efforts this election cycle as particularly unusual, noting position statements by prominent scientists in the 1992 and 2000 elections. Barke notes other historical examples, including groups of scientists who officially opposed the Vietnam War and Star Wars missile defense systems.
Suggesting that protests from scientists are more related to politics than to science, Walker cautioned at an AAAS debate last month that the explicit involvement of scientists in political discourse could lead to a "pushback." "If you've discredited yourself in the political arena, you've also discredited yourself in your ability to give the public a clear view of science," he said. "Simply because you're an award-winning scientist doesn't give you license to be factually incorrect when you engage in the political process." When asked whether he was suggesting that scientists' grants would come under closer scrutiny if they publicly opposed Bush, Walker said that he doesn't believe there is a "cause-and-effect relationship between political participation and potential loss of funding."
David Guston, a Rutgers University assistant professor of public policy who specializes in science policy, says that the recent outrage from scientists regarding over the so-called politicization of science is disingenuous. "Science is shot through, top to bottom with politics," he said, in everything from decisions about billions in funding to the votes on tenure committees.
But Bush opponents say there is something different about this election, and they note that some of the Scientists and Engineers for Change are Republicans or Independents. "It's true that all the things we've seen happened here and there in other administrations, but not with this prevalence or this intensity or in this multitude," said UCS chair and Cornell emeritus professor of physics Kurt Gottfried at a University of California, Berkeley, symposium sponsored by the group. What sets this election year's science policy gripes apart, he said, is scientists' concern not just for particular policies within one's field of expertise, but a general worry about a pattern of abuses across several fields. "The abuses they're concerned about are infractions of the ethics of science," he said. "And that unites people in all kinds of scientific disciplines."
"I know these guys," Harvard professor of chemistry and Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach told The Scientist at the talk here, referring to the list of 48 Nobel laureates. "They're not wild-eyed radicals. But it's easy for politicians to characterize them any way they want because the public doesn't know them."
Links for this article
A. Harding, "US stem cell rules loosening?" The Scientist, May 20, 2004.
T. Agres, "NAS probes politics, science," The Scientist, July 22, 2004.
M. Anderson, "Bush dismisses council members," The Scientist, March 3, 2004.
Scientists and Engineers for Change
"48 Nobel Laureates endorse John Kerry: An open letter to the American people," June 21, 2004.
Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking, February 2004.
Bush Science: Forum on the Bush Administration's Science Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, October 12, 2004