Science vs. politics gets down and dirty

Scientists and politicians have disagreed throughout history, of course, going back at least to the post-World War II debate over the future of atomic weapons. In one famous episode, Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer, who opposed the development of more powerful bombs, lost his security clearance after dramatic congressional hearings in 1954.

In his recent testimony, for example, Satcher detailed his own losing battle to garner President Clinton's support for needle-exchange programs, which were supported by studies as a way to cut HIV infections.

Koop testified that though he faced opposition in addressing AIDS, he was fortunate in having the support of President Reagan. "Over the years since I left office, I've observed a worrisome trend of less-than-ideal treatment of the surgeon general, including undermining his authority at times when his role and function seem abundantly clear," he said.

He testified that if he had been impeded in the same way as his successors, some of his most important work — including reports on smoking and health — "would never have happened."

Says Princeton's David Goldston, former chief of staff for the House Science Committee under now-retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.: "As politics have gotten more and more polarized, everyone has to claim their views are objective, pure and factual, which means they are pulled into the scientific side. Most of these issues are largely values questions, but no one wants to discuss those, so we end up with baroque debates about science."

The storm over stem cells

The most contentious subject may be President Bush's position on embryonic stem cell research. These are master cells that scientists hope can one day be used to make rejection-free transplant tissues. Opponents of the research decry the destruction of embryos that occurs when the cells are harvested in the laboratory.

Bush decided early on that federal money would be given only for research on existing stem cell colonies, or lines. Scientists argued that the number of cell lines therefore available for funding (originally supposed to number more than 60 but actually less than two dozen) were insufficient for research.

"If we are to find the right ways to advance ethical medical research, we must also be willing when necessary to reject the wrong ways," Bush said last year as he vetoed legislation that would have expanded such research.

Says Greenberg: "I'm sure George Bush doesn't give a hang about stem cells, but he does what he has to do to please his supporters."

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and science advocacy group, has begun a campaign to "protect the integrity of science." Scientists and Engineers for Change, which included dozens of Nobel laureates, campaigned against Bush in 2004.

"Don't think the problem is going to go away," Goldston says. "With politics more polarized than ever and a lot of these issues just continuing forward, efforts to frame science in debate are now inherent to our system."

Science's Kennedy and others believe the bruising battles between scientists and politicians can be left behind, without permanently damaging their relationship. "We have a lot of real problems and there is too much to be gained by working together," Kennedy says.

But others are more cautious.

"The danger comes when (science) gets to be seen as simply politics by other means," Shapin says. "Why trust it then?"

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