Skip to main content

Under Bush, Science Learned It Must Speak Up

Outgoing administration used science when it needed it and scorned it when it didn't.

This is the first of two stories looking at the scientific legacy of the George W. Bush administration and contrasting it with the expected direction of the incoming regime. To see the second story, on the cautious optimism scientists have for the incoming regime, click here.

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.”

The United States lost critical time, the letter went on, in innovating alternative energy sources, treating disease, reversing climate change, strengthening security and improving the economy. In the process, the country has lost ground as the world’s scientific leader and leading attraction to the world’s current and would-be scientists — many of whom could not have come here even if they wanted to after Sept. 11.

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.

Ready, Fire, Aim
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.

She became one of the founding directors in 2006 of Scientists and Engineers for America, another newly vocal but nonpartisan science organization that seeks to educate the public about the science policy positions of political candidates and to train scientists to run for local offices.

“It’s not just another motivating factor of when funding levels go down,” Wood said of the broad mobilization this year of the scientific community (the federal investment in basic and applied research enters 2009 on the decline.

In real terms for the fifth year in a row, with more than half the budget over that time going to defense). “That motivates scientists. But it wasn’t just the money.”

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.”

Bush’s major scientific policy positions — most notably on global warming and stem cell research — were announced before he installed his scientific adviser, the appointee charged with funneling the scientific community’s expertise into the president’s ear.

Bush famously laid out his stem cell policy on Aug. 9, 2001, during his first televised address to the country. Federal funding for stem cell research, he said, would be limited to work on only the stem cell lines that existed as of that day (experts later said the number of viable existing lines was considerably smaller than the “more than 60” Bush claimed). Federal funding, he declared, would not support the use of any more human embryos.

John Marburger, former president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wasn’t confirmed as Bush’s science adviser for another two months, and then his position was demoted from “assistant to the president for science” to “science adviser.” Marburger’s voice — and literally his office — was removed from Bush’s inner orbit in the White House.

Marburger contended that the title didn’t matter. But other scientists saw the demotion as both a roadblock to getting expertise to the president and a symbol of how little the president was inclined to listen anyway.

“Marburger has soldiered on, has been practically invisible,” said Bill Blanpied, a retired analyst with the National Science Foundation and something of a historian on presidential science advisers. “When issues like global climate change, stem cell research, alternative energy have come up, either Marbuger gives the wrong sort of advice, or I think most of us would like to believe that he simply isn’t consulted.”

Other government scientists, like NASA climate change expert James Hansen, have said they’ve simply been asked to be quiet, confounding the fundamental tenets of peer review and public dissemination of new research.

Co-opting What’s Useful
Past presidents have relegated science to a low priority (Nixon even fired the entire Office of Science and Technology Policy). And for the past 20 years, science routinely has been a collateral victim of the culture wars. The Bush administration may be responsible not for launching a “war on science” — as both Obama and Hillary Clinton labeled the administration’s attitude — but for expanding a strategy some time in the making.

Author Chris Mooney identifies this more broadly as a strategy of conservatives in his book The Republican War on Science. The difficulty, though, is not that one party is for science and the other is against it but that two pillars of the Republican base — industry and the religious right — have vested interests in limiting regulation and promoting traditional family values.

They may not oppose science itself but, rather, the construction roadblocks inherent in the Endangered Species Act or the moral implications of teaching comprehensive sex education.

What they have done is not to dismiss science but in many cases to co-opt it, for example, by arguing that a greater degree of scientific certainty should be required in enforcing the Endangered Species Act or by recasting “creationism” as the scientific study of “intelligent design.”

What Bush has done more specifically, his critics say, is to selectively cherry-pick science — to emphasize the inevitable uncertainty attached to global warming instead of the scientific consensus that it probably exists — to justify policy decisions already made.

“What Bush has done that no president has done before him is to actually distort science,” Blanpied said. “That to me is among the greatest crimes this administration has done.”

Mooney, in response to this, helped create Science Debate 2008, a grass-roots initiative during the presidential campaign that corralled public scientific policy concerns into a 14-item questionnaire for Obama and John McCain (to which both responded).

“Now,” said Carney of the AAAS, one of the many signatories to Science Debate 2008, “whether the general public cares enough to vote for a candidate based on scientific knowledge is a different question.”

Mooney blames in part the scientific community’s longstanding disengagement with public policy and the public in general, a charge he takes on in his next book, Unscientific America, due out in May.

“There has not been nearly as much investment in that as there has been in ‘let’s produce really good knowledge,’” he said.

Scientists lately have been drawn out of their research labs in reaction to Bush. But they have to continue the engagement, Wood agrees, even without such an easy foil. The public must understand science, and scientists must work more broadly to be understood, Wood said, “so we don’t end up in a situation where government feels completely OK about ignoring science.”

At that point, she said, government is fundamentally not functioning the way it is supposed to. Only an informed public and a vocal scientific community can call out the abuses.

“I believe that American culture doesn’t take science seriously enough,” Mooney said, before turning to look forward to Obama’s inauguration. “A president is likely one of the only people who has the power single-handedly to change that. I don’t know if this president will. This president has a lot of things on his plate."

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.