Science vs. politics gets down and dirty

Malicious, vindictive and mean-spirited. These are words that might surface in divorce court.

But they have been lobbed in the course of a different estrangement: the standoff between the Bush administration and the nation's scientific community.

The relationship, which has been troubled since the dawn of the Bush presidency, hit a new low last month when Richard Carmona, surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, lashed out at his former colleagues in testimony before a House committee.

Joined by former surgeons general C. Everett Koop and David Satcher, Carmona said public health reports are withheld unless they're filled with praise for the administration. "It was Surgeon General Koop who pointed out and still says today … 'Richard, we all have fought these battles, as have our predecessors going back over a century, but we have never seen it as partisan, … as vindictive, as mean-spirited as it is today, and you clearly have it worse than any of us had.' "

Though Koop, who served under President Reagan, and Satcher, who was appointed by President Clinton, also spoke of political interference, it was Carmona's testimony that took lawmakers and scientists by surprise. He was, after all, the man who gave the president a hug before TV cameras when he was named surgeon general.

Carmona's statements crystallized the schism between the president and many of the nation's scientists, touching off conversations within and outside the administration on how bad things have gotten, who is to blame and what this means for the future.

From President Bush's televised address on Aug. 9, 2001, when he announced his intention to restrict federal spending on research on embryonic stem cells, conflicts with scientists have been a hallmark of his administration. The debates have included sex education, space exploration, contraception and global warming.

"The science community now recognizes that this administration completely puts its political cart before the scientific horse," says Science magazine editor in chief Donald Kennedy, a former Food and Drug Administration chief. "We've seen it with one issue after another."

But White House science adviser John Marburger says one reason science has emerged as such a hot issue is that the research-is-right banner is an easy one to wave.

"Science has become very powerful as a symbol and everyone who has a case to make, or argument to win, tries to recruit science on their side," Marburger says. "Issues that might not have been labeled as 'science-related' controversies in the past are now called science-related."

Science policy professor Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University in Tempe says: "I think the opportunity to use science as a political tool against Bush has been irresistible — but it is very dangerous for science, and for politics. You can expect to see similar accusations of the political use of science in the next regime."

Spending is up

On the whole, the Bush administration has supported funding science just like past administrations, Sarewitz says, allocating $139 billion in federal research and development money in fiscal 2006. This is up from $106.3 billion in fiscal 2001, according to the non-partisan American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And because polls show that scientists tend to be Democrats, Sarewitz says, their complaints should be viewed cautiously.

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