Science still in the back seat

Daniel S. Greenberg

Disappointment is the frequent outcome of science’s yearning to be honoured and heeded by politics. For scientists appalled by George W. Bush’s indifference to scientific data and values, candidate Obama looked so promising. And even more so when he vowed in his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A few months later, he told the National Academy of Sciences: ‘Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’ Nearly three years later the ‘rightful place’ is still unspecified, and the wants and ways of science have not triumphed over the needs and methods of electoral politics. Silly to think they ever would.

The latest episode in this teary saga arises from the minefields of reproductive biology: at issue, the contraceptive Plan B One-Step, a so-called morning-after pill. Plan B proponents stress that it is designed to prevent ovulation and therefore is not an abortion pill, a distinction that fails to assuage the anti-abortion camp. Appointed by the Food and Drug Administration to study the safety and efficacy of Plan B for girls under 17, an expert advisory committee recommended that younger girls should have over-the-counter access to the pills without a prescription, as those over 17 have had for the past few years. The FDA’s scientists agreed, and so did the FDA’s management, as it usually does.

Politics then intervened. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, declared on 7 December that the manufacturer had not provided enough data concerning younger girls of reproductive age. By wide account, this was the first time that the FDA had been overruled by an HHS secretary. ‘Some see science again taking a back seat to politics,’ the New York Times said. Given the weight of scientific endorsement, nobody believed Sebelius’s explanation, probably not even Sebelius herself. In her previous job as governor of Kansas, a state rife with violent opposition to abortion, she was a strong proponent of women’s reproductive rights.

Fourteen US senators wrote ‘to express our disappointment’ and asked Sebelius to provide the ‘specific rationale and the scientific basis’ for her decision, while many health organisations chimed in with angrily worded charges of betrayal and political cowardice. It was pointed out that many less carefully studied over-the-counter drugs are easily available to children.

The president, declaring that he had nothing to do with the decision, took the parental high ground:

As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine. And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old, going to a drugstore, should be able, alongside bubble gum or batteries, be able to buy a medication that potentially if not used properly could end up having an adverse effect. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.

He didn’t mention that the pills cost about $50 per treatment, which, for the 10 and 11-year-old set, puts them in a class apart from bubble gum.

Was Obama merely engaging in a singular election-year swerve around an otherwise firm commitment to incorporate sound science into policymaking? On a variety of science-related issues – from the validity of evolutionary theory to the reality of global warming – Obama shames the know-nothing confidence of his predecessor. But he’s no beginner when it comes to choosing the popular over the scientific.

In the last congressional election, Obama cut off money for a sorely needed but locally opposed national nuclear-waste storage facility in Nevada to boost the re-election chances of the state’s senior senator, Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader. Obama acted after at least $13 billion had been spent on geological studies and site preparation for the Yucca Mountain site, ‘probably making that swath of Nevada desert the most carefully and completely studied piece of ground on the planet,’ according to Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University.

In September, the president told the Environmental Protection Agency to delay implementing stricter air-quality standards – a win for a high-powered industry lobbying campaign. Environmentalists also feel betrayed by Obama’s approval of a limited resumption of oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

When it comes to money – the ultimate gauge of political affection for science – the Obama administration gets mixed grades. Times are hard, and anti-spending rhetoric spouts from both parties, with Obama joining in. He has said the government’s science-supporting agencies are crucial for national well-being and deserve special treatment. But, with a few exceptions, the government research and development budget has been losing to inflation for several years, even with a one-off influx of billions in stimulus money.

Nonetheless, Obama is as good as it’s going to get for the wise application of scientific knowledge, and the care and feeding of the scientific enterprise. The track record among his predecessors includes some mighty blows to scientific pride. Nixon, perceiving disloyalty among his science advisers, fired them and abolished the White House science office. Reagan cooked up the Star Wars anti-missile programme – the greatest technological extravaganza since the Manhattan Project – without consulting his science advisers. And Bill Clinton didn’t try to intervene when Congressional budget cutters cancelled the dream machine of high-energy physics, the Superconducting Super Collider, even after $3 billion had been spent on digging a tunnel for it. George Bush publicly scoffed at climate warming and endorsed an egalitarian approach to the teaching of evolution and creationism.

C.P. Snow said long ago that politicians should pay respectful attention to scientists because scientists ‘have the future in their bones’. But what does that have to do with elections that are less than a year away?


  • 27 December 2011 at 9:16pm
    DanielGreenwood says:
    At the time Professor David Nutt was ejected from the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for comments he made about ecstasy in The Lancet, many politicians echoed Churchill's declaration that "scientists should be on tap, but not on top."

    However recent history suggests that for scientific opinion to have a meaningful impact on public policy, scientists must go beyond the role of advisor and be given statutory independence to take decisions on how to implement public policy objectives such as regulation of pharmaceuticals or safe disposal of nuclear waste.