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Bush's War on Science | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Bush's War on Science

In August 2001, George W. Bush gave a primetime speech promising to limit the number of stem cell lines available for research on Alzheimer's, cancer and other diseases.

Bush put ideology and religion above all in making this decision, and three years later his terrible policy choice is haunting him. Just last week, Ron Reagan Jr. announced that he would criticize Bush's restrictions on stem cell research at the Democratic convention; more than four thousand scientists (a good number of whom have served both Democratic and Republican administrations) have now signed a statement--first released in February--attacking the Administration's unprecedented politicization of science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently updated its groundbreaking report on "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," which examines the methods that the Bush Administration uses to manipulate and distort "the work done by scientists at federal agencies and on scientific advisory panels."

"The Administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions," the scientist's letter warned, "placing people who are professionally unqualified in official posts; disbanding existing advisory committees; censoring and suppressing reports by the government's own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice."

The UCS's report rigorously documents the equivalent of Bush's little shop of anti-enlightenment policy horrors, demonstrating how Bush has twisted facts and suppressed research to enact retrograde policies on such issues as climate change, mercury emissions and emergency contraception. An example: When the EPA discovered that Bush's Clear Skies Act would be "less effective" than a "bipartisan Senate clean air proposal" in guarding the air we breathe, the Administration simply suppressed the EPA study.

The UCS also charges that scientists are now getting blackballed for their political views. The report cites instances in which nominees to scientific advisory panels have been questioned about whether they had voted for Bush. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's office rejected nineteen of the twenty-six appointments that Dr. Gerald Keusch, who served as director of the NIH's Fogarty International Center until he resigned in frustration, had recommended. Bush's policy has demoralized the scientific community, and prevented our nation's smartest, most experienced scientists from serving on panels devoted to safeguarding public health.

One of the nineteen rejected, the Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel, happens to be my stepfather. When Keusch questioned HHS's decision on Wiesel, he was told that he "had signed too many full-page letters in the New York Times critical of President Bush." (When did petition-signing qualify as a measure of scientific expertise?) Ironically, this Administration can't get its facts straight--whether it's in the arena of war, budget deficits or science. In a recent email, Torsten told me, "I have not signed a statement against Bush but nonetheless for some reason I am on the Administration's blacklist. Perhaps [it is because of] my human rights activities and being contrary in general."

Torsten, who served as president of the prestigious Rockefeller University for nearly a decade, added, the Administration's "science policy has been bad in general. Instead of choosing the best scientific advice the preference is given to individuals with the right religious or philosophical pedigrees."

Preference is also given to those with big business pedigrees. As Robert Kennedy Jr. pointed out in a Nation cover story last March, Bush's agenda is "to systematically turn government science over to private industry by contracting out thousands of science jobs to compliant consultants already in the habit of massaging data to support corporate profits." This Administration's war on science "is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition," he argued.

In the last few weeks alone, Bush's assault on science has intensified. In an unprecedented move, the White House has announced that scientists now need approval from senior Bush political appointees to participate in World Health Organization (WHO) meetings. This has outraged the WHO and others in the scientific community, who believe this decision opens the door for the Administration to blackball scientists who don't follow the line on controversial health issues.

In an April memo, William Steiger, who serves as director of the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs (and has a Ph.D. in Latin American history), also announced a new policy on notices of foreign travel (NFTs). Steiger instructed that any NIH scientist who wants to attend "technical consultations, advisory groups, expert committees and workshops" located in the US and sponsored by "multilateral organizations" must first obtain permission by filing an NFT with his office. (Previously, such requests were routine and perfunctory; scientists filed them simply to alert US embassies to their travel to meetings abroad.)

Under Bush, the NFTs have become a tool to leverage control over government scientists. The changes, said Keusch in an interview this week, are intended to "escalate the levels of control over who can attend" scientific meetings and "what they can say" when there.

Dr. Kurt Gottfried, the chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview last week that a second Bush term would "further the demoralization of the professional staff now in service...If Bush is reelected, they would lose hope," Gottfried argued, and "the people most likely to leave [in a second Bush Administration] are the most valuable scientists at the NIH and the CDC, an exodus from which it would take decades for America to recover.

If Bush wins in November, the quality of science that informs policy making will be undermined by the suppression, manipulation and distortion of scientific knowledge. If you want to understand what's at stake, click here to read the UCS's report.

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