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.

It was a former member of the Republican administration, however, who complained in July that "the nation's doctor" has been marginalized. Carmona said political appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services prevented him from speaking out on scientific evidence tied to embryonic stem cell research, contraception and sex education.

His statements echoed other allegations of political interference with science this year:

•A Fish and Wildlife Service inspector general's report last month revealed how a political appointee altered scientific reports on endangered species in ways that limited protected habitats, and released internal reports to real estate industry lawyers in violation of federal regulations. Agency director H. Dale Hall called the actions "a blemish" on its scientific integrity.

•NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified in March before a House committee about how a 24-year-old press liaison, a political appointee, barred him from speaking publicly about global warming. "Review and editing of scientific testimony by the White House Office of Management and Budget seems to now be an accepted practice," he added.

•Weather researcher Thomas Knutson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Senate in February how appointees forbade him from commenting on links between hurricanes and global warming.

"Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Carmona testified.

Says science historian Steven Shapin of Harvard: "There never was a time when science was perfect and politics was 100 miles away." But the Carmona testimony suggests "something markedly intrusive and shameless about what the administration is up to."

Administration interests

In interviews, three administration science officials, Ray Orbach of the Energy Department's Office of Science, William Jeffrey of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Elias Zerhouni of the National Institutes of Health, denied that administration officials have distorted scientific advice.

Research proposals for federal money are evaluated by scientists themselves, and this peer review "is probably the strongest bulwark against politics interfering with science," Zerhouni says.

Says Marburger: "I have not seen any orchestration or central direction about what you can't talk about." The president expects scientists to share their expertise and to "be a little bit proactive in getting the truth out" if they encounter resistance, he says.

That's not quite the whole picture, critics say.

"The only reason the truth is getting out now is that a new Congress is holding Bush's feet to the fire," says Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. Mooney says the administration's leaders have long discouraged scientists.

Says Daniel Greenberg, a Washington journalist who has written extensively on science policy: "The Bush administration has interests — ideological, theological and compliant to some industries — that are its preoccupations. Scientists have an inflated sense of themselves if they think the administration has anything against them in particular as it pursues its goals in ways that disregard their views."

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?"