Bush’s Science Policy






P

rominent
members of the scientific community have been at war with the White
House for at least three years over allegations that it’s trying
to impress an ideological agenda on the work of government scientists.
So it should have been no surprise last year when 48 Nobel Prize
laureates—who normally stay above such things—got behind
John Kerry’s campaign for president. They came from the very
top of the U.S. scientific establishment and included Harold Varmus,
president of Memorial Sloan- Kettering Center Center in New York
and former head of the National Institutes of Health, and Gilbert
Omenn, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science. 


But
the organization that’s done the most to expose and criticize
Bush’s scientific policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists
(UCS), had published an open letter blasting Bush in February, signed
by many of the same figures who were endorsing Kerry. For their
criticism of Bush to be linked to another candidate was “unfortunate
from our perspective,” says Lexi Shultz, UCS’s Washington
representative. 


The
UCS positions itself as a watchdog against the politicization of
science rather than endorsing any special point of view—even
though its sensitivities tend to be on the liberal side. Stem cell
research, global warming studies, and surveys of health in prostitutes,
HIV-positive, and drug-addicted populations—all are good science,
not ideological markers. “In the best of all worlds, science
should be allowed to be science,” says Shultz, a stance that
the practitioners she represents widely support. 


The
trouble is, not everyone agrees anymore, and not just along Pennsylvania
Avenue or in the Beltway’s conservative think tanks. A good
many critics on the progressive side—not so much scientists
as public policy researchers who study scientific process and outcomes—argue
that the U.S. scientific community is in denial since much, if not
most, of its work is inherently political and pretending otherwise
is only going to make it harder. Debates about genetically engineered
food and the future uses of biotechnology and nanotechnology, not
to mention the study of stem cell research and AIDS, have cracked
open the protective shell that’s traditionally allowed scientists
to operate in isolation from most political scrutiny. 


Science
is not just science anymore and if the work its practitioners cherish
is going to go forward, they’ll have to embrace a more democratic
model for framing, approving, and reviewing projects and allocating
resources. Otherwise, critics warn, the right will use government’s
control of the purse strings on most large-scale scientific research
to mold a new agenda that decimates these fields and awards more
and more of the kitty to projects with overtly military and commercial
purposes. Moreover, the debate is not just about the utility of
“pure” science and the social impact of sex research anymore.
The rise of new fields like biomedecine and nanotechnology has shifted
scientists’ focus to the basic building blocks of matter and
human life, potentially enabling them to radically transform the
natural world. If a way isn’t found to involve the larger community
directly in the scientific decision-making process, “democracy”
could be reduced to irrelevancy. 


Based
on an examination of documented actions by the Bush administration,
reports from groups critical of its policies, and conversations
with scientists affected by them, government-funded science is being
subjected to tremendous, maybe unprecedented political pressure.
Researchers—especially those studying anything related to abortion
or sexual practices—feel intimidated and are afraid of losing
their funding. 


The
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees most
government-funded basic research, has applied political litmus tests
to candidates for seats on advisory panels, sometimes including
whether they voted for George W. Bush. (At an American Physical
Society meeting in April, presidential science advisor John Marburger
conceded that questioning candidates about their political leanings
was improper and claimed the practice had stopped.) Along with the
White House’s Office of Management and Budget, HHS has been
imposing more layers of review by non-scientists over research projects,
resulting in what Shultz calls “paralysis by analysis.”
HHS has been accused of secretly aiding far-right groups that want
to shut down any research on sexual practices, birth control, and
ways of dealing with drug abuse that don’t involve police action.





In
other government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection
Agency and the Fish & Wildlife Service, many scientists say
they have been pressured to cook their findings to support pre-approved
conclusions. Political appointees are being seeded deeper into these
agencies as well as the National Institutes of Health where they
can more closely monitor and restrict government and government-funded
scientists’ work. HHS is also enforcing new policies intended
to keep scientists who take its money from expressing independent
opinions—for example, about birth control. 


Meanwhile,
Bush abruptly ended a series of post-9/11 budget increases for the
NIH last year. Among the results at the NIH, say grant recipients,
have been ugly, behind-the-scenes battles over funding between groups
that ought to be allies—for instance, between researchers into
HIV/AIDS in the white-male gay population and those studying the
disease in the IV-drug using population, much of it people of color.
One researcher who has been receiving grants from an NIH institute
for over ten years says she may now have to look for funding in
other countries. Others, too, fear that the Bush-era political pressures
are precipitating a brain drain that will worsen as younger scientists
decide that applying for government-funded grants is not worth the
trouble. 


Of
course, much of this could reverse itself if a more liberal Administration
takes the White House in 2008. But watchdogs like the UCS fear more
is at stake. They are especially concerned about the NIH. Much of
basic life sciences research conducted in the U.S. is concentrated
in this huge complex of research centers, which for decades has
enjoyed a remarkably arms’ length relationship with the government
agencies that supervise it. Central to its reputation are its hundreds
of advisory panels, which review and recommend projects and choose
their members based on their standing in the scientific community. 


The
result is that the NIH has long been regarded as a kind of worldwide
gold standard for scientific inquiry. By applying anything other
than strictly professional criteria to who may serve on the advisory
panels, some scientists say, the Bush administration is tampering
with truth itself. The issue is not just who gets to punch the tickets
of a collection of competing researchers, but who defines what is
and is not scientific knowledge. The UCS last year responded with
two detailed studies of “misuse of science” by the Bush
administration. These counterattacks scored a good deal of press
coverage and attracted support from prominent scientists and progressive
lawmakers. 


But
there’s little evidence that the Bush White House has paid
any price. When Kerry took up the issue in his campaign last year,
it failed to make much of a stir. Afterwards, science advisor Marburger
suggested that attacks by scientists during the campaign could hurt
federal support for science funding. No NIH-connected scientist
interviewed for this article indicated that the political pressure
they felt under the first Bush II administration has eased up in
the slightest during the second. 


When
the UCS, lawmakers, and assorted grant recipients decried the situation,
the White House and its allies turned the criticism on its head.
A report by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in 2003 on manipulation of
scientific reports and advisory panels was dismissed as itself a
politicization of science. When Andrea Lafferty, head of the religious-right
Traditional Values Coalition, complained to mainstream media outlets
about NIH-funded studies she considered morally objectionable, she
knew well enough to drop the fundamentalist rhetoric and frame herself
as a crusader against “abuse of taxpayer dollars.” 


Is
she a prude with no respect for scientific truth or are NIH scientists
using government money to promote, for example, a “sex-positive”
attitude in underage teens that is just as political as her pro-abstinence
stand? “There’s an arrogance in the scientific community
that they know better than the average American,” Lafferty
told the

New York Times

last year. 


Some
observers with no special sympathy for the Bush White House tend
to agree with her. One of these is Daniel Sarewitz, co-director
of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State
University. Writing in

Newsday

about the Food and Drug Administration’s
decision last year to forbid sale of the Plan B contraceptive pill,
ignoring its own technical expert panel’s advice, Sarowitz
noted, “The real problem is the illusion that these controversies
should be resolved scientifically, and by scientists.” The
stem cell controversy, for example, is not a technical, but an ethical
issue, and “scientists have no special status or expertise
when it comes to ethical decisions.” 


If
they want the U.S. to seriously address, for example, global warming,
Sarewitz continued, Bush’s enemies have to stop “hid[ing]
behind the sanctity of science…. The goals themselves can emerge
only from a political process in which science should have no special
privilege.” 


What’s
needed, these critics say, is that science be democratized. The
advisory panels at institutions like the NIH, for example, arrive
at decisions on the projects they review by “consensus,”
which in this case means no votes are recorded showing what position
each member took. So democratization means altering the decision-making
process to be more transparent and accountable, says David Guston,
Sarewitz’s co-director. But it also means creating new “border
institutions” at the intersection of science and politics that
make it more participatory. At present, he says, when scientific
issues do bubble up into community consciousness, the key decisions
have already been made. Guston suggests three steps to change this: 


  • Recreating the
    Office of Technology Assessment that advised Congress on scientific
    matters before it was abolished following the 1994 “Republican
    revolution” 

  • Making expert
    deliberations of scientific bodies more transparent, for instance
    by instituting recorded votes on advisory panels 

  • Creating more
    opportunities for the public to weigh in through the use of deliberative
    polling and citizens’ panels 


The
last point most directly addresses the issue of how to make science
more democratic. It’s also attracted the most attention over
the past few years. 


Policy
big-thinkers like Guston, lodged in a few university-funded programs
and at the Loka Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group
based in Washington, are looking to Europe—not exactly a favorite
philosophical destination of cultural conservatives—for a model
that the U.S. can adopt. In particular, they’re promoting Denmark’s
“consensus conferences”: deliberative gatherings that
have become a routine part of determining which scientific projects
get public support and funding in that country over the past two
decades. 


Consensus
conferences assemble panels of some 12 to 15 citizens—not scientists
or advocates for one or another program—to study broad areas
of scientific policy and social concern, listen to testimony, ask
questions of experts, and then make recommendations to lawmakers.
The Board of Technology, a Danish parliamentary agency, began convening
consensus conferences in the 1980s and has since held 20 of them. 


Typically,
these panels stress social concerns over issues of how to divide
up resources or balance different types of research that groups
of scientists may advocate. One studied human genome research in
the late 1980s. Its final report supported basic research in genetics,
but also called for more research on the interplay between environmental
factors and genetic inheritance and more research on the social
consequences of science, notes Richard Sclove, founding director
of Loka. 


Loka
held the first consensus conference in the U.S. in 1997, a study
of telecommunications issues by a panel in Boston whose members
ranged from “a homeless shelter resident” to a retired
farmer to a “high-tech business manager,” according to
Loka’s own account of the event. The panel spent two weekends
discussing background readings and listening to briefings from scientists.
Next, they heard ten hours of testimony from experts including computer
specialists, government officials, business executives, educators,
and interest group representatives, followed by a question-and-answer.
Finally, they formulated a consensus statement recommending a comprehensive
set of policy changes and presented it at a press conference at
Tufts University. 


Since
then, the concept has spread. The National Science Foundation, before
its budget was cut last fall by Congress, funded a series of consensus
conferences set up by North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
The first, in 2003, was on genetically modified foods, and recommended
that the government tighten regulation of GM foods and require them
to be labeled clearly. The NC State group then held two consensus
conferences on nanotechnology—the new techniques of working
with matter at the atomic and molecular level that’s being
called the “next industrial revolution” and that could
be used to reengineer familiar substances like gold and carbon into
new materials. 


Even
though nanotech is a very new area that most people are still unaware
of, the two panels “got it” and produced well informed
and useful reports, says Patrick Hamlett, director of the Program
on Science, Technology and Society at NC State and an organizer
of the project. Hamlett and his colleagues also experimented with
holding some sessions between the participants face to face and
some “keyboard to keyboard” over the Internet. They found
that the participants were able to work together about as well remotely
as they did in person, raising the prospect that consensus conferences
could be organized across great distances. 


The
model attracted enough interest that Loka and other groups successfully
lobbied Congress to include a provision calling for public involvement
in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act
that Bush signed in December 2003. The measure, which provided $3.7
billion for nanotech research, also called for “public input
and outreach to be integrated into the Program by the convening
of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such
as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational
events.” 


Last
fall, some of the new funds were used to organize a Loka-sponsored
“community workshop” on getting the public involved in
nanotech decision-making at Howard University in Washington, DC.
It produced 13 recommendations, including providing public opportunities
to influence the policies and decisions of the National Nanotechnology
Coordinating Office before the office implements decisions. 


No
one yet knows how large-scale consensus conferences would work in
a big, heterogeneous society like the U.S., as opposed to a small,
relatively homogeneous one like Denmark. No one has yet proposed
giving them a formal role in decision-making here. Supporters like
Guston and Hamlett allow that industry and the military might devise
ways to game the system and turn the citizens’ panels into
just another way of manufacturing consent to policies that promote
profits rather than the good of the community. 


But
process transparency and attention from the public could give panels
a good chance of maintaining their integrity and effectively bringing
community concerns to bear on the direction of science. If successful,
the result could challenge a lot of myths about people’s ability
to understand and think critically about many important but arcane
subjects. “The success of consensus conferences definitely
undercuts the belief that public opinion on science is hysterical,
uninformed, and molded by advocacy groups,” says Hamlett. 


This
discussion about democratizing science isn’t coming along at
a convenient time for groups who want to keep the scientific community’s
anger focused on the enemy in the White House. “I’ve attracted
some fire” from scientists concerned about putting up a united
front against Bush, says Guston. “They’re much more interested
in having science their way— which means opposing Bush, but
not considering how their vision doesn’t match up with democratic
politics.” 


At
the UCS, Shultz says the best way to combat Bush’s ideological
agenda is to work on building support among prestigious science
organizations that command public respect. She points to a report
by the National Academies of Science and Engineering in November
that said quizzing candidates for advisory panels on their political
affiliations was inappropriate. Meanwhile, the open letter that
the UCS released against Bush early last year, which started out
with 62 signatories, now has over 6,500, she says. Shultz points
to the state-level proposition to provide funding for stem cell
research in California that passed last November as a strong indication
that the public doesn’t agree with Bush’s definition of
what’s acceptable science. Thus strengthened, the UCS is calling
for Congress and the Administration to adopt five steps to restore
integrity to government-subsidized science: 


  • Protection of
    scientists who turn whistleblower when they spot political abuses 

  • Ensuring that
    government advisory panels are truly independent—including
    an end to political litmus tests for nominees 

  • Better scientific
    advice to Congress—for example, by recreating something like
    the Office of Technology Assessment 

  • Better scientific
    advice to the president—including restoring the White House
    science advisor’s status as an assistant to the president 

  • Increasing public
    access to scientific information the government funds, by fully
    enforcing the Freedom of Information Act and eliminating layers
    of classification that effectively keep much of it locked away 


Bills
have been introduced in the House covering some of these points,
but they have not yet moved to the hearings stage. Whatever the
public may think about Bush’s scientific agenda matters little,
critics point out, unless they consider it important enough to make
him pay a political price for his actions. That hasn’t happened,
and won’t, they contend, until the scientific community is
ready to adopt a more democratic process of deliberation that lets
the people in rather than tacitly excluding them. 


“The
UCS and other critics are still hoping for a solution from science—that
science will provide an escape from politics,” says Mark B.
Brown, assistant professor of government at California State University,
Sacramento, who is now engaged in a National Science Foundation-funded
study, “Toward a Political Theory of Bioethics.” “Pointing
to the urgency of the problems at hand is always a way to avoid
dealing with more democratic solutions.” 


Those
“solutions” could include some things that today’s
scientific community may find difficult to swallow, Guston warns:
“If the scientific community insists on the advisory panels
operating on consensus rules, they won’t get there. The point
is to accept that science is politicized, and create conditions
where it can be more democratized, more transparent.” 



 





Eric Laursen
is an independent journalist based in New York City.