November 04, 2004

George W. Bush, Man of Science

Reason Online

What will science policy look like over the next four years?

by Ronald Bailey

"President Bush and his administration are compromising our future," declared an open letter by 48 Nobel Prize-winning scientists earlier this year. The Nobelists formed an unprecedented scientific lobbying group called Scientists and Engineers for Change. They decried President Bush for reducing scientific research funding, setting unwarranted restrictions on stem-cell research, ignoring the scientific consensus on critical issues such as global warming, and politicizing scientific advisory panels.

So what can we expect, now that the American public has granted President Bush four more years? As I peer deeply into my dusty crystal ball, I first foresee that unless there are soon clear-cut victories in the "War on Terrorism," scientific issues and policies will simply not occupy much of the attention of the public or policy makers. But let's look at some potential issues:

Global Warming—Negotiators from 160 or so countries will meet next month in Buenos Aires at the 10th Conference of the Parties for the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change. This should be an interesting meeting, because both houses of the Russian legislature have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. It will now come into force without the United States' approval sometime next spring. The Kyoto Protocol mandates cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases by industrial country signatories between 2008 and 2012. President Bush announced that he opposed implementing the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001. However, he has never officially withdrawn the United States from UN climate change negotiations—he merely refused to send the treaty to the Senate for possible ratification.

While the climate talks in Buenos Aires will deal with the minutiae of implementing the Kyoto Protocol, they will also turn to considering what the next steps might be. And there will have to be next steps, because even when fully implemented the Kyoto Protocol will have next to no effect on any actual global warming trends. My bet is that negotiations will start to consider contraction and convergence schemes, which allocate to each country a portion of an overall declining carbon budget based on its share of the global distribution of income. Over time, to achieve convergence, each year's ration of the global carbon emissions budget for each country will progressively converge to the same allocation per person until they become equal by an agreed-upon date. I suspect that the Bush administration could actually sign on to such a scheme if the date for the beginning of compliance is sufficiently far out—say, 2030 or so.

Stem Cells—President Bush limited federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells to colonies of cells that had been derived before his speech on the topic on August 9, 2001. To date, only some 22 colonies of stem cells have qualified for such funding. With the bioluddite Leon Kass, head of his Council on Bioethics, whispering in his ear, President Bush is unlikely to change his position on this issue despite the fact that recent polls show that a majority of Americans favor more federal funding for stem-cell research. The passage of California's Proposition 71, which establishes a $3 billion state fund for stem-cell research, is an interesting exercise in federalism which Bush will likely ignore.

Environmental issues—They played almost no role in the campaign this past year. The reason is pretty clear: According to polls taken around Earth Day last April, the environment was at the bottom of the list of concerns for most Americans. And why not? Air pollution is way down; water pollution levels have improved, and forests are expanding. While the ideological environmentalists at the League of Conservation Voters gave the Bush administration an "F" on its Presidential Report Card, the free market environmentalists at the Property and Environment Research Center gave it only a "C+" on its Environmental Report Card. Given that the control of both houses of Congress rests on thin margins, don't expect any big changes in environmental policy. Basically, we're going to be stuck with the clunky and expensive regulatory system we currently endure. We will not soon see the environmental improvements that private property and markets could bring about.

Appointments to scientific advisory committees aside—overlooking the irony of a group of scientists endorsing Senator John Kerry for president because President Bush has "politicized" science—has the Bush administration done anything all that different from past administrations? "[I]t is increasingly impossible to ignore that this White House disdains research that inconveniences it," magisterially declared the editors of Scientific American. But the Bush administration is not the first administration to allegedly "disdain" scientific evidence. As I described earlier, the Clinton administration fired scientists who didn't agree with its take on ozone depletion, denied federal funding for research on human embryos that a federal advisory body recommended, and jiggered studies on second-hand cigarette smoke until it got the result it wanted. In any case, the Bush administration has sometimes been a bit too eager to reward its donor base in industry with regulatory relief rather than grapple honestly with real concerns raised by scientific data or propose market-based solutions to environmental problems.

Finally, a word of unsolicited advice to scientists who want to play in the public policy arena. Facts by themselves do not immediately entail the adoption of particular policies. Many of the scientific "facts" cited by activists arise from contested epidemiological data and controversial computer models. For example, if humanity is significantly warming the planet, it is entirely possible that the best policy is to encourage rapid technological progress and economic growth so that any problems caused by such warming can be dealt with more effectively and fairly in the future. And how does one make the trade-off between possibly harming a few species of birds through the use of DDT, and using the insecticide to prevent the deaths of millions of people each year from malaria? These are political decisions. Suggestive scientific data certainly help guide our decisions, but they do not mandate any particular policies—not even those championed by the most brilliant researchers.

Posted by jmellicant at November 4, 2004 03:10 PM