Science and the Bush Legacy

Science and the Bush Legacy December 14, 2008

Never before has science been so highly politicized as during the Bush administration. As Chris Mooney so aptly demonstrated in The Republican War on Science, on issue after issue the Bush administration distorted, ignored or stifled science in the service of political aims. Emily Badger has an excellent review of the Bush administration and a look forward at how Obama can fix some of the problems.

Barack Obama received a relatively quiet endorsement on Aug. 23 from 61 of the country’s Nobel laureates in physics, medicine and chemistry — scientific heavyweights who used the occasion to both call for a scientific renewal in America and critique the state of American science at the end of the Bush era.

“During the administration of George W. Bush,” their open letter charged, “vital parts of our country’s scientific enterprise have been damaged by stagnant or declining federal support. The government’s scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations. As a result, our once dominant position in the scientific world has been shaken and our prosperity has been placed at risk.”

Badger says that this has forced scientists to be more of a presence in public disputes in reaction to the misuse and abuse of science by the Bush administration. In the long run, this may be a good thing.

The underlying concern — that the Bush administration has been either ambivalent toward or downright hostile to their work — elicited an outcry this election season from the normally staid scientific community.

“The number of papers, reports, recommendations, even seminars was just so overwhelming in comparison to past elections,” said Joanne Carney, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It was amazing.

“Frankly, I think it was because of the disillusionment with the current administration.”

Come January, George W. Bush will leave a legacy of stagnant stem cell research, increasing global warming and politicized public health. But he also leaves a generation of scientists who have found their voices at a time when nearly all of our greatest policy challenges have a scientific component.

She provides a textbook example of how the Bush administration subverted science to political expediency, particularly in order to appease the religious right and the anti-abortion base of the GOP:

Issues of reproductive health have always captured public attention in a way that global warming and stem cell research — with their unknowable consequences and long-term payoffs — haven’t. And so the story of Plan B has offered one of the most vivid case studies of how the Bush administration has approached science.

In 2004, Barr Pharmaceuticals sought permission to sell Plan B, an emergency contraceptive (different from the “abortion pill,” RU-486), over the counter. The Food and Drug Administration’s scientific advisers approved the request 23-4, and it was backed by agency staff experts. Still, the application was turned down on the grounds that Barr had failed to provide research on how the drug would affect younger women. A later General Accounting Office audit found that this was the only incidence in 10 years of the FDA overruling its advisory committee’s recommendation to approve an over-the-counter drug.

“The Plan B decision clearly had nothing to do with either scientific and medical evidence or the normal government processes of how the FDA does business,” said Susan Wood, who resigned as the director of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health over the incident.

But the problem is much broader:

It was the culture of disregarding science within the government, she said, and the subsequent demoralizing of government scientists. And it was the way science was either ignored or misused to justify inaction on global warming, restrictions on the Endangered Species Act — or the blurring of a link between abortion and the risk of breast cancer, a discredited claim that briefly and curiously appeared in 2002 on the Web site of the National Cancer Institute.

Criticism of the Bush administration’s approach to science extends beyond controversial topics like birth control and global warming to the minute rules governing how government scientists do and share their work — and, ultimately, how they use it to inform regulations.

Another organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has documented hundreds of instances of political interference throughout government agencies charged with researching — and then regulating — issues of public and environmental health and safety. This past spring, UCS followed up earlier investigations at the FDA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a survey of scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 1,586 staff scientists who responded to a questionnaire, 889 said they had experienced some political interference.

Two-hundred and eighty-five said they had experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.” And 224 said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.”

“What we’ve seen under President Bush,” said Michael Halpern, program manager of UCS’s Scientific Integrity program, “is a culture of secrecy and suppression where if scientific information doesn’t fit with predetermined policy decisions they wanted to put forward, that scientific information was summarily distorted, suppressed or misused to justify the decisions they wanted to make.”

The whole article is well worth reading.

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