Science and the Bush Administration

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Science  24 Sep 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5692, pp. 1873
DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5692.1873

In various ways, the scientific community in the United States—and in other nations as well—has expressed concern about the way in which decisions about scientific issues have been subjected to political tests by the Bush administration. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in a statement that I signed along with many others, said in pertinent part: “When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions.” The UCS and John H. Marburger III, President Bush's science advisor, have continued to trade charge and countercharge. Now a committee of the National Academies is examining some of the issues at stake, including the important matter of criteria for appointing scientists to government posts and advisory committees.

I leave this unfinished debate in those capable hands. But as we approach the election, it is important to examine the most critical issues at the interface of science and politics in the determination of public policy. And on several of these issues, a new pattern of behavior by the administration is becoming clear. The sequence is as follows: A government position is taken on a matter of scientific importance; policy directions are announced and scientific justifications for those policies are offered; strong objections from scientists follow; the scientific rationale is then abandoned or changed, but the policies based on that science remain, stuck in the same place.

U.S. policy with respect to HIV/AIDS is a case in point. The virus is spreading at an alarming rate, devastating Africa and now making horrifying inroads into the teeming continent of Asia. Stopping the spread, especially among the youngest and most productive members of society, should be the highest international priority. With a vaccine far in the future, stemming the tide requires that we educate people to protect themselves; and although abstinence and fidelity prevent exposure to HIV, under most circumstances the only safe and effective protection is condoms.

Initially, the Bush administration gave scant recognition to the protective value of condom use. The Centers for Disease Control Web site (which was once changed to suggest, incorrectly, a possible relation between abortion history and breast cancer) contains a confusing mixture: some emphasis on condom failure rates and a plug for abstinence. Complaints apparently led to the addition of a positive statement about condom effectiveness. The U.S. Agency for International Development now promotes condom use. But the emphasis is on use in selected target populations, although the value of much more widespread use has been demonstrated repeatedly in scientific studies.

Climate change has had a similar history. Repeated administration statements questioned the science behind the position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the global warming seen in the past 100 years is associated with human activity. Now, at last, comes a statement from an interagency administration committee, signed by cabinet secretaries, confirming the IPCC position. In the policy domain, however, we still have a long-range research program aimed toward a “hydrogen economy,” but no commitment to current mitigation of this growing crisis.

As for stem cells, the arbitrary decision to restrict federally supported research to the few cell lines available before the president's statement in 2001 still holds. After sustained criticism from the scientific community, the administration has conceded that the research is valuable. It has made funding available for research but nevertheless maintains the cell line restriction. And it supports legislation that would criminalize research involving nuclear transfer from somatic donor cells—work focused on making stem cell research more valuable, both therapeutically and experimentally.

In these cases, either religious conservatism or economically based political caution has played a determining role in administration policy. However, it looks as though the criticism from individual scientists and from the UCS has been influential in causing the administration to be more honest about the underlying science. We should welcome this new posture. Nevertheless, although the realities of the science may be better accepted, the policy implications are still being ignored. Our goal now should be to have the policies track the science.

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