Science and the Bush Administration


The Bush administration has frequently been accused of manipulating information for a political purpose.  No better example is the current Iraq war where the world was repeatedly warned about Iraq’s associations to Al Qaeda, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential for a “mushroom cloud”.1,2,3  All of these assertions, of course, have since been refuted.4,5 However, while its impact may be less, probably the most frequent occurrences mishandling and misrepresenting data are the administration’s treatment of science, which, in the last two years, has been bombarded with constant, vociferous criticism.

 To appreciate how deep the skepticism of the scientific community is towards the current administration, one only need look at the world’s two most prestigious science journals, Nature, an English peer-review journal, and Science, the American equivalent.  Along with scientific reports, they offer science based opinion and news pieces.  As such, not only does the science in these journals get wide readership but so too do the opinions, particularly on the relationship between politics and science.  With regards to the Bush administration, both these journals have repeatedly expressed concern over its overt political influence on science.  

 During the 2000 election campaign, both journals seemed optimistic about the commitment to science from George Bush.  Although expressing some concern regarding Bush and Cheney’s fossil fuel business past, it was believed this team would be just as likely to promote science through investment and recruitment, both domestic and foreign.6  Overall, neither journal seemed overly concerned about the handling of science from a Bush administration and, from a scientific interest, appeared quite comfortable with him winning the presidency.
 
 In fact, within a short time after taking office, Bush, despite earlier remarks, acted in a way that recognized the importance in studying global warming7 and the need to make available to Africa generic AIDS drugs.8  Despite the normal cautions and concerns typically directed towards any administration, the first two years of the Bush administration were generally welcomed.  Although the science may conflict with the economic and political philosophies of the administration, science it was not feared that the science would ever be compromised.

 But near the end of 2002 that all changed.  Two scathing headlines, one from each journal summarized a growing frustration within the scientific community.  Nature’s editorial, “All the President’s yes-men?”9 and Science’s “Advice Without Dissent”10 describe an administration that made “unwise moves” and was developing “disturbing” habits.  The editorials accuse the administration of not only ignoring dissenting opinion also refusing to ever hear it.  Rather, they subverted the whole purpose of advisory committees by stacking them with individuals who were too often in complete agreement with the administration and themselves.  Sadly, other advisory committees had fallen victim to the same thinking including those determining economic policies.11

 Climate change has probably been the most abused by this behaviour.  The president’s environmental advisors became an exclusive group of lobbyists with strong interests to promote the use of fossil fuels,12 steering the government’s policies to be more industry friendly and thus adjusting the science to satisfy economic goals.  As an overt demonstration of this, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a program devoted to climate change research, was shuffled to the Commerce Department.13  Science has described the administration’s attitude towards global warming not only “…a national embarrassment…” but also “dangerous”.14  Even today, Bush continues to grasp at reports that favour his policies and ignores those that challenge them.  When recently asked by Science about human contributions to global warming, the president noted the findings of a 2001 report questioning human involvement on the matter but neglected to mention a more recent report from his own administration that acknowledged its impact.15
 
With regards to stem-cell research AIDS, neither journal has been pleased.  Nature considers the obstacles to doing sound stem-cell research “unnecessary”16 while Science believes the Centers for Disease Control website since being led by the new administration has put too great an emphasis on condom failure and the advocacy of abstinence.17 Additionally, the administration demands any drugs provided by the U.S. government to poor countries for HIV/AIDS studies must first be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a condition that consequently forbids several generic drugs.18  During the second of the three presidential debates, President Bush attempted to justify this position while discussing another issue suggesting that drugs approved by other rich countries like Canada but not by the FDA were potentially dangerous.19
 
It was in “All the President’s yes-men?” when Nature treated the administration’s lack of curiosity and willingness to listen to opinions that opposed their policies as a serious issue.  Politics were becoming too involved in scientific decisions.  Elizabeth Whitman, the first appointed head to the Environmental Protection Agency by President Bush, claimed that any questioning of his policies would be interpreted as disloyalty.20 Later that year another editorial, titled “No way to run a superpower”, claimed critics, including scientists, had too often been denied access to the administration and that the administration had an alarming tendency to “…distort scientific evidence or rig advisory panels for political purposes”.21 In one case, the argument was not about whether scientists were censored but rather how often.22 When John Marburger, the Bush appointed science advisor, responded to a signed statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists, complaining about the administrations habits to suppress or mislead on scientific data, Nature was very disappointed by his rebuttal.23

Appointments, too, have become the target of criticism.  Although the announcement of Marburger as science advisor was praised,24 there has since evolved a concern that science and politics were not separated when making appointments; that the political views of a candidate were significant in determining their qualifications for a post.  Applicants to the President’s Council for Bioethics claim they were asked outright if they had voted for President Bush.25  The government has not denied the allegations. When considering candidates for scientific posts, Republican Representative Vern Ehlers went so far as to say, “Who did you vote for?” is an appropriate question to ask.26  In fact, being a Bush supporter does seem to improve one’s credentials.  William R. Steiger, the secretary for the Health and Human Services, a position that emphasizes public health, had little education regarding the issue but plenty of past relations with the Bush family. His decisions to reverse policies that originally limited advertising for tobacco and junk food and his decision to restrict the availability of generic AIDS drugs seems more in tune with the economic interests of those lobby groups than it does for public health.27 

 The issue of public health blurs the line between science and health policy.  Issues like tobacco ads and generic drug access may not be direct science, but their implication on world health does influence the money science receives for research topics like AIDS which is why appointments like Steiger’s receive such scrutiny.  To ignore public health, or bioethics for that matter, would be to isolate science into a world separate from everyone else.  As such, both journals devote attention to these matters.  Unfortunately, their attitude towards the Bush administration’s here is no different accusing the administration of using bioethics as a political tool.28

 The extreme government intrusion on science has lead to another concern:  the inability for the U.S. to confidently and regularly recruit the best minds for its research.  Significant changes to homeland security have led to new rules making it remarkably difficult for foreigners to acquire visas, may it be for study, work or invited talks.29,30  This, of course, is not limited to science as the case of Tariq Ramadan shows.31 Further deterrents include Congress overruling grant decisions. Normally, the government an annual budget to institutions like the National Institute of Health but funding decisions for specific projects are left to the institute’s peer review bodies where scientists evaluate grant applications in their field to decide if they are worth funding.  Lately, however, government has begun to exercise its might.  An earlier motion in Congress to rescind grants studying sexual behaviour, drug abuse, and HIV/AIDS was narrowly defeated.32  Other grants have been revoked because Congress declared them frivolous.33
 
As of yet, neither journal has endorsed a candidate and it is unlikely either will do so.  Yet, both journals have been very harsh of the current administration.   In particular there are concerns regarding the administration’s inflexibility, concerns that have become more and more prominent as the election nears.  This last point was summed up by Science the following way:  “A government position is taken on a matter of scientific importance and scientific justifications for those policies are offered; the scientific rationale is then abandoned or changed, but the policies based on that science remain, stuck in place”.35
 American Voters are not going to make science their primary concern when deciding their preferred candidate.  Nor am I suggesting that they should.  Nevertheless, this is just another of the many issues to consider when participating or, like me, watching the upcoming election.  The government has alienated a lot of scientists.  Far worse, this alienation is not about funding but, more importantly, about trust.

 

1 George W. Bush.  http://archives.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/10/07/bush.transcript/
2 Full text of Dick Cheney’s speech. http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,781215,00.html
3 The Rumsfeld Versions.  The Globe and Mail Oct 6, 04  A22
4 CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/01/28/kay.transcript/
5 Comprehensive Report of the Speical Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/iraq_wmd_2004/
6 Hart Dm and Branscomb LM.  “Research, Innovation and Politics.  Nature 2000; 407; 561-2.
7 Davis M.  Early signs of a thaw in Bush’s attitude to global warming.  Nature 2001; 410: 133.
8 Dickson D.  Bush declines to support drug companies’ line on AIDS profits.  Nature 2001; 410:  3.
9 All the President’s yes-men?  Nature  2003; 421: 459.
10 Advice without Dissent.  Science 2002; 298: 703.
11 The corporate policymaking.  Washington Post Jan 5 2001; A20.
12 Ritson D.  Fuel for thought.  Nature 2003; 421; 575-6.
13 Lawler A.  White House shakes up U.S. program.  Science 2002; 296: 232.
14 The policy drought on climate control.  Science 2003; 299: 309.
15 Bush and Kerry offer their views on science.  Science 2004; 306: 46-52.
16 Better to Be Talked about…  Nature 2004; 431: 229.
17 Science and the Bush Administration.  Science 2004; 305: 1873.
18 Cohen J.  Drugmakers Test Restrictions on Generics in U.S. Programs.  Science 2004; 306: 213.
19 Commision on Presidential Debates.  http://www.debates.org/pages/trans2004c.html
20 Suskind R.  Without a Doubt.  New York Times Magazine.  October 17, 2004.
21 No way to run a superpower.  Nature 2003; 424: 861.
22 Malakoff D.  White House rebuts charges it has politicized science.  Science 2004; 304: 184-5.
Praise, for a change.  Science 2004; 304: 1077.
23 Brumfiel G.  Mission Impossible.  Nature 2004; 428: 250-1.
24 Science arrives in government – a bit late.  Science 2001; 294: 1241.
25 Lawler A and Kaiser J.  Report accuses Bush Administration, again, of ‘politicizing science’.  Science 2004; 305: 323-5.
26 Mervis J.  Congressmen clash on politics and scientific advisory committees.  Science 2004; 305: 593. 
27 Kaiser J.  The man behind the memos.  Science 2004; 305: 1552-3.
28 Annas GJ and Elias S.  Politics, morals and embryos.  Nature 2004; 431: 19-20.
29 Brumfield G.  As One Door Closes…  Nature 2004; 427: 190-95.
30 Science 2004; 306: 45.
31 Sontag D.  Mystery of the Islamic scholar who was barred from the U.S.  New York Times Oct 6, 2004.  A1.
32 U.S. Science Dominance is the Wrong Issue.  Science 2004: 306: 197.
33 Kaiser J.  House Votes to Kill Grants, Limit Travel to Meetings.  Science 2004; 305: 1688.
34 The Candidate’s Viws on Science.  Science 2000; 290: 271.
35 Science and the Bush Administration.  Science 2004; 305: 1873.

 

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