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<nettime> Science Friction
Art McGee on Sun, 20 Jul 2003 07:09:59 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Science Friction


Wow! I'm sort of conflicted about this one. On the one hand,
I don't think that eurocentric, capitalist, patriarchal,
white supremacist scientists should be considered holy men
and women, who can do or say no wrong, but on the other
hand, this article simply nails down the perception I have
of the incredible anti-intellectual bias running throughout
this current U.S. regime (yes, it's a regime, it would only
be an administration if it was fairly elected). It's not
just that Bush is an idiot, he's an intentional idiot.


http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.thompson.html

Washington Monthly

July/August 2003

Science Friction:
The Growing -- and Dangerous -- Divide
Between Scientists and the GOP

By Nicholas Thompson

Not long ago, President Bush asked a federal agency for
evidence to support a course of action that many believe he
had already chosen to take on a matter of grave national
importance that had divided the country. When the government
experts didn't provide the information the president was
looking for, the White House sent them back to hunt for
more. The agency returned with additional raw and highly
qualified information, which the president ran with,
announcing his historic decision on national television. Yet
the evidence soon turned out to be illusory, and the entire
policy was called into question.

Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you say? Actually, the
above scenario describes Bush's decision-making process on
the issue of stem cell research. In August 2001, Bush was
trying to resolve an issue he called "one of the most
profound of our time." Biologists had discovered the
potential of human embryonic stem cells -- unspecialized
cells that researchers can, in theory, induce to develop
into virtually any type of human tissue. Medical researchers
marveled at the possibility of producing treatments for
medical conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and
spinal cord injuries; religious conservatives quivered at
the fact that these cells are derived from human embryos,
either created in a laboratory or discarded from fertility
clinics. Weighing those concerns, Bush announced that he
would allow federal funding for research on 60-plus stem
cell lines already taken from embryos, but that he would
prohibit federal funding for research on new lines.

Within days, basic inquiries from reporters revealed that
there were far fewer than 60 viable lines. The National
Institutes of Health (NIH) has so far confirmed only 11
available lines. What's more, most of the existing stem cell
lines had been nurtured in a growth fluid containing mouse
tumor cells, making the stem cells prone to carrying
infections that could highly complicate human trials.
Research was already underway in the summer of 2001 to find
an alternative to the mouse feeder cells -- research that
has since proven successful. But because these newer clean
lines were developed after Bush's decision, researchers
using them are ineligible for federal funding.

At the time of Bush's announcement, most scientists working
in the field knew that although 60 lines might exist in some
form somewhere, the number of robust and usable lines was
much lower. Indeed, the NIH had published a report in July
2001 that explained the potential problems caused by the
mouse feeder cells and estimated the total number of
available lines at 30. Because that initial figure wasn't
enough for the administration, according to Time magazine,
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson asked the
NIH to see if more lines "might conceivably exist." When NIH
representatives met with Bush a week before his speech with
an estimate of 60 lines scattered around the world in
unknown condition, the White House thought it had what it
wanted. In his announcement, Bush proclaimed, without
qualification, that there were "more than 60 genetically
diverse stem cell lines."

After his speech, then-White House Counselor Karen Hughes
said, "This is an issue that I think almost everyone who
works at the White House, the president asked them their
opinion at some point or another." However, Bush didn't seek
the advice of Rosina Bierbaum, then-director of the White
House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Hughes claimed that Bush had consulted other top federal
scientists, including former NIH director Harold Varmus.
That was partly true, but the conversation with Varmus, for
example, took place during a few informal minutes at a Yale
graduation ceremony. Later press reports made much of Bush's
conversations with bioethicists Leon Kass and Daniel
Callahan. Yet neither is a practicing scientist, and both
were widely known to oppose stem-cell research. Evan Snyder,
director of the stem-cell program at the Burnham Institute
in La Jolla, Calif., says, "I don't think science entered
into Bush's decision at all."

The administration's stem-cell stand is just one of many
examples, from climate change to abstinence-only
sex-education programs, in which the White House has made
policies that defy widely accepted scientific opinion. Why
this administration feels unbound by the consensus of
academic scientists can be gleaned, in part, from a telling
anecdote in Nicholas Lemann's recent New Yorker profile of
Karl Rove. When asked by Lemann to define a Democrat, Bush's
chief political strategist replied, "Somebody with a
doctorate." Lemann noted, "This he said with perhaps the
suggestion of a smirk." Fundamentally, much of today's GOP,
like Rove, seems to smirkingly equate academics, including
scientists, with liberals.

In this regard, the White House is not necessarily wrong.
Most scientists today do lean Democratic, just as most of
the uniformed military votes Republican -- much to the
annoyance of Democrats. And like the latter cultural divide,
the former can cause the country real problems. The mutual
incomprehension and distrust between the Pentagon and the
Clinton White House, especially in its early years, led to
such debacles as Somalia and the clash over allowing gays to
serve openly in the military. The Bush administration's
dismissiveness toward scientists could also have serious
consequences, from delaying vital new medical therapies to
eroding America's general lead in science. The Clinton
administration quickly felt the sting of the military's
hostility and worked to repair the relationship. It's not
clear, however, that the Bush administration cares to reach
out to scientists -- or even knows it has a problem.


Mad Scientists

The GOP has not always been the anti-science party.
Republican Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of
Sciences in 1863. William McKinley, a president much admired
by Karl Rove, won two presidential victories over the
creationist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and supported
the creation of the Bureau of Standards, forerunner of
today's National Institutes of Science and Technology.
Perhaps the most pro-science president of the last century
was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former West Point
mathematics and engineering student, and later president of
Columbia University. Eisenhower established the post of
White House science adviser, allowed top researchers to
wander in and out of the West Wing, and oversaw such
critical scientific advances as the development of the U2
spy plane and federally funded programs to put more science
teachers in public schools. At one point, he even said that
he wanted to foster an attitude in America toward science
that paralleled the country's embrace of competitive sports.
Scientists returned the affection, leaning slightly in favor
of the GOP in the 1960 election.

The split between the GOP and the scientific community began
during the administration of Richard Nixon. In the late
1960s and early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam War
captured the sympathy of the liberal academic community,
including many scientists, whose opposition to the war
turned them against Nixon. The president characteristically
lashed back and, in 1973, abolished the entire White House
science advisory team by executive order, fuming that they
were all Democrats. Later, he was caught ranting on one of
his tapes about a push, led by his science adviser, to spend
more money on scientific research in the crucial electoral
state of California. Nixon complained, "Their only argument
is that we're going to lose the support of the scientific
community. We will never have their support." The GOP
further alienated scientists with its "Southern strategy,"
an effort to broaden the party's appeal to white
conservative Southerners. Many scientists were turned off by
the increasing evangelical slant of Republicans and what
many saw as coded appeals to white racists.

Scientists also tended to agree with Democrats' increasingly
pro-environmental and consumer-protection stances, movements
which both originated in academia. Gradually, as John Judis
and Ruy Teixeira show in their recent book The Emerging
Democratic Majority, professionals, the group of highly
skilled workers that includes scientists, moved from the
Republican camp to the Democratic. Yet that transition took
a while, in large part because most professionals were still
fiscally conservative, few sided with pro-union Democrats,
and the Republican Party had not yet been overtaken by its
more socially conservative factions. In the mid 1970s, for
example, Republican President Gerald Ford showed a moderate
streak while in the White House and reinstated the Office of
Science and Technology Policy.

Ronald Reagan oversaw a widening gulf between the Republican
Party and academic scientists. During the 1980 campaign, he
refused to endorse evolution, a touchstone issue among
scientists, saying, "Well, [evolution] is a theory -- it is
a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been
challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed
in the scientific community to be as infallible as it was
once believed." Though he aggressively funded research for
military development, he alienated many in academia with his
rush to build a missile defense system that most scientists
thought unworkable.

George H.W. Bush tried to walk the tightrope. He pushed the
Human Genome Project forward and elevated the position of
chief science adviser from a special assistant to assistant.
Yet he served during an acrimonious public debate about
global warming, an issue that drove a wedge between academic
scientists and the interests of the oil and gas industry --
an increasingly powerful ally of the GOP. He generally sided
with the oil industry and dismissed environmentalists'
appeals for the most costly reforms. Yet he also tried to
appease moderates by signing the landmark Framework
Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro and helping
pass the Clean Air Act, which aimed to reduce smog and acid
rain. In the end, his compromising did him little good;
environmentalists attacked him, and his rapprochement with
liberal academic elites won him few friends with social
conservatives. Bush faced a surprisingly tough primary
challenge from Pat Buchanan in the 1992 election campaign,
saw his support among evangelicals in the general election
decline compared with 1988, and lost to the Democratic
underdog Bill Clinton.

Newt Gingrich didn't make the same mistakes. When he became
the House Speaker in 1995, Gingrich worked vigorously to cut
budgets in areas with Democratic constituents -- and he knew
that by the time he came to office most scientists were
supporting Democrats. The speaker took aim at research
organizations such as the U.S. Geological Survey and
National Biological Survey and dismissed action on global
warming. He even abolished the Congressional Office of
Technology Assessment, which served as the main scientific
research arm of Capitol Hill. Gingrich claimed that OTA was
too slow to keep up with congressional debates; agency
defenders argued that the cut was fueled by partisan dislike
of an agency perceived as a Democratic stronghold. Indeed,
several years prior, OTA had published a report harshly
critical of the predominantly GOP-backed missile defense
project, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

By the mid 1990s, the GOP had firmly adopted a new paradigm
for dismissing scientists as liberals. Gingrich believed, as
Nixon did, that most scientists weren't going to support him
politically. "Scientists tend to have an agenda, and it
tends to be a liberal political agenda," explains Gingrich's
close associate former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the
former chairman of the House Science Committee. In 1995,
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House
committee dealing with global warming, called climate change
a "liberal claptrap." In interviews with The Washington Post
in 2001, Texas Republican Tom DeLay dismissed evolution as
unproven, said that we shouldn't need an EPA because "God
charges us to be good stewards of the Earth," and denigrated
scientific Nobel Prize winners as "liberal and extremist."


Ph.D. Phobia

George W. Bush embodies the modern GOP's attitude toward
science. He hails from a segment of the energy industry
that, when it comes to global warming, considers science an
obstacle to growth. He is strongly partisan, deeply
religious, and also tied to evangelical supporters. And,
like Reagan, he has refused to endorse the scientific
principle of evolution. During the 2000 campaign, a New York
Times reporter asked whether he believed in evolution. Bush
equivocated, leading the Times to write that he "believes
the jury is still out."

Bush has also learned from his father's experience that
siding with scientists gains him little politically, and
often alienates conservatives. Bush and Rove have tried to
woo portions of other groups that traditionally trend
Democratic -- steel tariffs for unions, faith-based grants
for African-American ministers -- but scientists are
different. They aren't a big voting bloc. They are
generally affluent, but not enough so to be major donors.
They are capable of organizing under the auspices of a
university to lobby for specific grants, but they aren't
organized politically in a general way. In short, scientists
aren't likely to cause the GOP problems if they are
completely alienated. Scientists have almost never turned
themselves into anything like a political force. Even Al
Gore, the apotheosis of many scientists' political hopes,
received little formal support from them during the 2000
campaign.

Consequently, the White House seems to have pushed
scientific concerns down toward the bottom of its list of
priorities. Bush, for instance, has half as many Ph.D.s in
his cabinet as Clinton had two years into his term. Among
the White House inner circle, Condoleezza Rice's doctorate
distinguishes her as much as her race and more than her sex.
Consider also the length of time the administration left top
scientific positions vacant. It took 20 months to choose an
FDA director, 14 months to choose an NIH director, and seven
months to choose a White House science adviser for the
Office of Science and Technology Policy. Once Bush had
appointed a head of OSTP, he demoted the rank of the
position, moved the office out of the White House, and cut
the number of associate directors from four to two. An OSTP
spokeswoman argues that the administration's decision to
move OSTP was inconsequential and that reducing the number
of associate directors was just a way of "reducing the
stovepipes." But geography and staff equal clout in
Washington, and unarguably signal how much the people in
power care about what you do.

Moreover, Bush appointed to one of the two associate
director positions Richard Russell, a Hill aide credentialed
with only a bachelor's degree in biology, and let him
interview candidates for the job of director. "It bothers me
deeply [that he was given that spot], because I don't think
that he is entirely qualified," says Allen Bromley, George
H. W. Bush's science adviser, who worked for some of his
tenure out of prime real estate in the West Wing of the
White House. "To my astonishment, he ended up interviewing
some of the very senior candidates, and he did not do well.
The people he interviewed were not impressed."


Cynical Trials

When required to seek input from scientists, the
administration tends to actively recruit those few who will
bolster the positions it already knows it wants to support,
even if that means defying scientific consensus. As with
Bush's inquiry into stem-cell research, when preparing
important policy decisions, the White House wants scientists
to give them validation, not grief. The administration has
stacked hitherto apolitical scientific advisory committees,
and even an ergonomics study section, which is just a
research group and has no policy making role.

Ergonomics became a politicized issue early in Bush's term
when he overturned a Clinton-era rule requiring companies to
do more to protect workers from carpal tunnel syndrome and
other similar injuries. Late last year, the Department of
Health and Human Services rejected, without explanation,
three nominees for the Safety and Occupational Health Study
Section who had already been approved by Dana Loomis, the
group's chair, but who also weren't clearly aligned with the
administration's position on ergonomics. Loomis then wrote a
letter saying that "The Secretary's office declined to give
reasons for its decision, but they seem ominously clear in
at least one case: one of the rejected nominees is an expert
in ergonomics who has publicly supported a workplace
ergonomics standard." Another nominee, who was accepted,
said that she had been called by an HHS official who wanted
to know her views on ergonomics before allowing her on the
panel.

The administration has further used these committees as
places for religious conservatives whose political
credentials are stronger than their research ones. For
example, on Christmas Eve 2002, Bush appointed David Hager
-- a highly controversial doctor who has written that women
should use prayer to reduce the symptoms of PMS -- to the
FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Commission.

Bush has also taken to unprecedented levels the political
vetting of nominees for advisory committees. When William
Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of New
Mexico, was considered as a candidate for a panel on the
National Institute of Drug Abuse, he was asked his views on
abortion, the death penalty, and whether he had voted for
Bush. He said no to the last question and never received a
call back. "Not only does the Bush administration scorn
science; it is subjecting appointments to scientific
advisory committees and even study sections to political
tests," says Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, the
community's flagship publication.


Control Group Politics

Any administration will be tempted to trumpet the
conclusions of science when they justify actions that are
advantageous politically, and to ignore them when they
don't. Democrats, for instance, are more than happy to tout
the scientific consensus that human activity contributes to
climate change, but play down evidence that drilling in the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which they oppose) probably
will have little impact on the caribou there. But Democrats
will only go so far down the path of ignoring scientific
evidence because they don't want to alienate their
scientific supporters. Increasingly, the Republicans feel
little such restraint. Hence the Bush administration's
propensity to tout scientific evidence only when it suits
them politically. For instance, though numerous studies have
shown the educational benefits of after-school programs, the
Bush administration cited just one recent report casting
doubt on those benefits to justify cutting federal
after-school funding. Meanwhile, the White House has greatly
increased the federal budget for abstinence-only sex
education programs despite a notable lack of evidence that
they work to reduce teen pregnancy. The administration
vigorously applies cost-benefit analysis -- some of it
rigorous and reasonable -- to reduce federal regulations on
industry. But when the National Academy of Sciences
concluded that humans are contributing to a planetary
warming and that we face substantial future risks, the White
House initially misled the public about the report and then
dramatically downplayed it. Even now, curious reporters
asking the White House about climate change are sent to a
small, and quickly diminishing, group of scientists who
still doubt the causes of global warming. Many scientists
were shocked that the administration had even ordered the
report, a follow-up to a major report from the
2,500-scientist Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
the world's leading climate research committee. Doing that
was like asking a district court to review a Supreme Court
decision.


Experts in Exile

This White House's disinclination to engage the scientific
community in important policy decisions may have serious
consequences for the country. One crucial issue that
Congress and the Bush administration will likely have to
confront before Bush leaves office is human cloning.
Researchers distinguish between "reproductive cloning,"
which most scientists abhor, and "therapeutic cloning,"
which may someday allow researchers to use stem cells from a
patient's cloned embryo to grow replacement bone marrow,
liver cells, or other organs, and which most scientists
favor. When the President's Council on Bioethics voted on
recommendations for the president, every single practicing
scientist voted for moving therapeutic cloning forward.
Bush, however, decided differently, supporting instead a
bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to ban all
forms of embryonic cloning.

John Marburger, the president's current scientific adviser
-- a longtime Democrat who says that he has good relations
with Bush and is proud of the administration's science
record -- wrote in an email statement which barely conceals
his own opinion: "As for my views on cloning, let me put it
this way. The president's position -- which is to ban all
cloning -- was made for a number of ethical reasons, and I
do know that he had the best, most up-to-date science before
him when he made that decision." Jack Gibbons, a former head
of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, calls
Bush's proposed ban "an attempt to throttle science, not to
govern technology." Harold Varmus, the former NIH director,
believes that "this is the first time that the [federal]
government has ever tried to criminalize science."

Another potentially costly decision is the Bush
administration's post-September 11 restrictions on the
ability of foreign scientists to immigrate to the United
States -- restrictions which many scientists argue go far
beyond reasonable precautions to keep out terrorists. In
December 2002, the National Academy of Science, the National
Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine issued
a statement complaining that "recent efforts by our
government to constrain the flow of international visitors
in the name of national security are having serious
unintended consequences for American science, engineering
and medicine." Indeed, MIT recently abandoned a major
artificial-intelligence research project because the school
couldn't find enough graduate students who weren't
foreigners and who could thus clear new security
regulations.


Unscientific Method

Like Gingrich, Bush favors investments in scientific
research for the military, health care, and other areas that
garner strong public and industry support. Indeed, the White
House quickly points to such funding increases whenever its
attitude toward science is questioned. But for an
administration that has boosted spending in a great number
of areas, more money for science is less telling than how
the Bush administration acts when specific items on its
agenda collide with scientific evidence or research needs.
In almost all of those cases, the scientists get tuned out.

Ignoring expert opinion on matters of science may never
cause the administration the kind of political grief it is
now suffering over its WMD Iraq policy. But neither is it
some benign bit of anti-elitist bias. American government
has a history of investing in the capabilities and trusting
the judgments of its scientific community -- a legacy that
has brought us sustained economic progress and unquestioned
scientific leadership within the global intellectual
community. For the short-term political profits that come
with looking like an elite-dismissing friend of the
everyman, the Bush administration has put that proud,
dynamic history at real risk.

---

Nicholas Thompson is a Washington Monthly contributing
editor.

Copyright (c) 2003 The Washington Monthly.

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