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Beware of Science as Political Veneer

“Scientization of politics,” not just politicization of science, weakens scientific integrity.
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Government officials often are criticized for “politicizing science” by interfering with scientists’ work in order to advance a political cause.

The use and abuse of science has been a recurring theme at Miller-McCune, with examinations of the science policies of both the last Bush and current Obama administrations put under the microscope. And earlier this year, Loyola Law School’s Robert Benson castigated the GOP for what he termed its “anti-science mania.”

But David Goldston also warns against “scientization of politics” — portraying all government decisions as science-based when, in fact, most aren’t.

Goldston, government affairs director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former U.S. House Science Committee chief of staff, made the remark last week in Washington during a panel discussion on scientific integrity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference on science and technology policy. Other panelists agreed.

“Some [government] decisions are based on the best available science,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program. “A lot of decisions end up being based on whatever values the politicians were elected to uphold.”

That’s OK, she said, as long as the politicians don’t pretend those decisions were science-based.

President George W. Bush’s restriction — and President Barack Obama’s expansion — of federal funding for stem cell research were not science-based decisions, even though they involved science, panelists said. The decisions were based on the different values that Bush and Obama took to the White House.

“The values decision is part of almost every decision being made,” said George Gray, director of George Washington University’s Center for Risk Science and Public Health and a former executive at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Protecting scientific integrity requires vigilance across several fronts, the panelists said.

First, scientists need to follow scientific principles without interference from government, business or other entities, Goldston said. That includes communicating scientific findings to the public.

Despite widespread concerns about political meddling, Grifo said her organization’s investigations found that improper corporate interference is the bigger problem.

Those who use scientists’ work need to be aware of the scientists’ biases and conflicts of interest, the panelists agreed. “Do they start with assumptions that lead them to ask only certain questions or to filter results in a certain way?” Goldston asked.

It’s important to distinguish bias from conflict of interest, Grifo said. A biased member of a scientific panel can be balanced by another scientist with different views, she said. But scientists should “strive to eliminate” interest conflicts.

Scientists and decision-makers who use scientists’ work need to be clear about what is scientific, how certain the science is and what isn’t science at all, the panelists said. Scientists should make clear “what is known, what is thought and what is unknown,” Grifo said.

“Get away from the notion that there is only one right answer,” Gray advised. For example, when presented with the same scientific data, the Food and Drug Administration may minimize the significance to humans of substances that cause liver tumors in mice, while the EPA might take them “very seriously.”

The current state of the science can prove neither right or wrong, he said. They are just “two government agencies making different decisions based on the same information.”

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