Those bastards, we’ve got to cut them back

Daniel S. Greenberg

  • The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney
    Basic Books, 288 pp, £14.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 465 04675 4

Little is required to ensure political quiet in the American scientific community. A bit of annual growth in government outlays for research, presidential medal-pinning ceremonies in the Rose Garden for revered elders of the profession, and expressions of respect for science produce a wonderful tranquillising effect on the endless frontier. With rare exceptions, this combination has prevailed for most of the collaboration between science and government that began during World War Two.

Now it’s different. George W. Bush and his ideological helpers have introduced acrimony into this once congenial coupling, even though his administration has been generous with money and honours for science. The story of how they achieved this feat of estrangement is told in detail by Chris Mooney, a Washington journalist, in The Republican War on Science, his first book. Mooney has examined both open and concealed records and conducted interviews far and wide. The result is a valuable chronicle of Bush’s persistent efforts to undermine the authority of science in the interests of his anti-regulatory and anti-abortion agendas. In the process, the president has done his best to cast doubt on the theory of evolution with his respectful nods to the crackpot concept of ‘intelligent design’, a pseudo-scientific fabrication more marketable than its crude kin, creationism. Bush asserts that ‘both sides ought to be properly taught,’ thus creating the illusion of a legitimate scientific controversy. We don’t know whether the president harbours merely instinctive or educated doubts about evolution, or whether he personally cares about it at all. What is certain is that he reaffirms the support of his fundamentalist Christian base when he attacks enemies of the Lord on ideological-theological grounds. In this struggle, evolution is seen as the fortress protecting relativism, liberalism and atheism. Take it down, and they will wilt.

The president’s base demands unwavering fealty to the anti-abortion movement, and the Bush camp has obliged, even to the extent of fabricating an association between abortion and breast cancer. An online fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute that discounted such a link was removed in June 2002 to mollify anti-abortionists in Congress. In its place, the NCI posted a report which said that ‘some studies have reported statistically significant evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer in women who have had abortions, while others have merely suggested an increased risk.’ Retaining some measure of integrity, the institute acknowledged that other studies had found no risk of breast cancer related to abortion. The fearmongering portions of the report evoked protests from Congress and from scientific groups which were beginning to recognise that the Bush administration was willing to invade professional territory previously considered out of bounds for political purposes. The NCI convened a meeting of experts, who concluded that ‘induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.’

The administration then turned its attention to condoms, which are an affront to the evangelical preference for abstinence. Mooney notes that both the Centers for Disease Control and the State Department’s Agency for International Development ‘have altered informational materials on condoms to downplay their effectiveness’. A fact sheet from the CDC, he reports, was edited to remove ‘a discussion of research showing that education about condoms does not increase sexual activity, as well as removing information about how to use condoms properly.’

Bush has repeatedly denigrated the work and warnings of the world’s leading climate researchers, scoffing at their conclusion – based on analyses of vast collections of data – that global climate change is caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. When a State Department report in 2002 edged closer to the mainstream scientific position, Bush dismissed the document as ‘put out by the bureaucracy’. Bush and Co employ the term ‘sound science’ as a rhetorical device for impeding or dismantling environmental regulations, which, they say, are too often based on ‘junk science’. Once an unexceptionable concept, ‘sound science’ was conscripted for political service in the tobacco wars of the early 1990s, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that ‘second-hand’ smoke caused some 3000 deaths a year. Into the fray, Mooney reports, came the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which describes itself as ‘a grassroots-based, not-for-profit watchdog group of scientists and representatives from universities, independent organisations and industry that advocates the use of sound science in the public policy area’. Behind the curtain, however, was Philip Morris, which in 1994 budgeted $500,000 for the coalition.

That was the year that the so-called Republican Revolution, led by Newt Gingrich, gave the Republican Party full control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. ‘Sound science’ became a battle cry for Gingrich in his commitment to the wholesale dismantling of government regulations, and it has since been carried forward by the Bush administration in a variety of ploys aimed at undermining regulations disliked by industry. Another anti-regulatory weapon, the Data Quality Act, a federal law that subjects government agencies to multiple challenges, peer review and stiff standards of scientific evidence when they attempt to mitigate health or environmental hazards, was passed in 2001. As Mooney argues, regulatory action should not be held to the standards of peer-review employed by scientific journals. The case for restricting an industrial pollutant, for example, may be substantial, and urgent for public health, and at the same time incomplete. The Data Quality Act and its peer-review provisions, Mooney points out, ‘simply give industry groups, which already have a right to challenge final regulations in court, multiple additional opportunities to attack the regulatory process in its earlier stages’.

When a joint report of the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation linked obesity and excessive sugar consumption, particularly in soft drinks, the sugar lobby reacted boldly. It was especially incensed by the participation of US government scientists in the preparation of the report, which reflected long-standing scientific and medical concerns. Regulatory action became more likely as the press took up the call for anti-obesity measures. Taking their case to the Department of Health and Human Services, the sugar lobbyists received a sympathetic hearing from the director of the Office of Global Affairs, William Steiger, a godson of the first President Bush. ‘Sound science’, abetted by the Data Quality Act, was his bludgeon of choice in attacking the report, even though researchers in his own department had participated in its preparation and endorsed it as a reliable basis for policy recommendations. With the co-operation of friendly Bush officials, sugar and other food interests deployed the many administrative and bureaucratic manoeuvres available for discrediting unwelcome conclusions by qualified scientists, and blocked regulatory action. As Mooney says, ‘by calling for unnecessary levels of scientific review, nit-picking over well-founded conclusions, attacking individual scientists, and even employing political threats, food interests did whatever they could to discredit the WHO/FAO report. They had political help in this process from the Bush administration, and in a sense, the strategy paid off.’ The World Health Assembly omitted any reference to the disputed document in the global strategy for diet and health that it issued in 2004.

Having fought off that menace, Steiger’s office took steps to prevent government scientists opposing the administration’s pro-business preferences in the future. Government agencies used to accommodate the WHO’s requests for specific staff scientists to serve as consultants. From now on, Steiger announced, his office would select the experts for the WHO, and they would be required to support US policies. Steiger also put restrictions on foreign travel by scientists in his department: ‘foreign’ included the Washington offices of the WHO and other UN organisations.

Bush and his collaborators have rarely incurred serious penalties, in public opinion or votes, for their many depredations of scientific integrity. The glaring exception is in his theatrical, hand-wringing decision regarding stem-cell research, which allowed federal funding only for embryonic stem-cell lines that were in existence prior to 9 August 2001. The decision, Bush said, was painfully arrived at after consultation with religious leaders, bio-ethicists, scientists and physicians. That it made little sense was evident from the start. Announcing the existence of 60 stem-cell lines, Bush seemed to indicate they would be enough for all time. In fact, there turned out to be far fewer than 60 when scientists applied for the cells, which were derived from so-called surplus frozen embryos in IVF clinics. Thousands of such embryos are routinely discarded when no longer wanted by their donor parents. But under the Bush edict, research that employs cells derived from these embryos is ineligible for federal funding. Moderate Republicans, with few exceptions, customarily indulge the president’s deference to fundamentalist passions as the price of keeping one of their own in the White House. The therapeutic hopes aroused by stem-cell research, however, have shifted political alignments. Nancy Reagan, mourning her husband’s death from Alzheimer’s disease, received public support when she endorsed the expansion of stem-cell research. More recently, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, a former heart surgeon who’s expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, changed his position and is now in favour of more research. It’s too early to know, but Bush’s war on science may be in difficulty. If so, little thanks is due to the American scientific community.

What’s lacking in Mooney’s account is an examination of the political passivity of that community, despite the many assaults on its integrity, and the seething discontent that is now evident among individual scientists. The ‘war’ in the title is a lop-sided conflict, initiated and pursued by the administration. On the science side, it has consisted of petitions by Nobel laureates and other eminences, press releases, occasional editorials in scientific journals and feeble efforts to mobilise anti-Bush votes in 2000 and 2004. Though disturbed and offended by the administration’s manipulation, distortion and suppression of scientific data, science is not at the barricades. Most deplorable is the failure of the scientific establishment to help the public understand the reality and implications of Bush’s assaults on science.

Pleased to be well financed, honoured and, if only occasionally, consulted by political power, scientists have responded by depicting science as an indispensable national endeavour, worthy of government support, but exempt from partisan politics. Which is shrewd, but not brave. Financed by government without having to fight for their money, and invited to the committee tables thanks to their specialised knowledge, scientists in the US feel no need to plunge into political combat. Bush has handed out many scientific medals, and government money for basic research has risen from $21 billion to $26 billion since he took office. Most scientists are in the Democratic camp, and many tend to the liberal side of politics. Nonetheless, as a force organised along professional lines, and in candidacies for public office, scientists are a near no-show in American politics. Lawyers, doctors and real estate agents are deep in the fray, providing money, arguments and campaign troopers for the candidates who share their preferences. Not so the scientists.

They did once jump into politics, but that was long ago, and few remember. In 1964, the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, grabbed the attention of scientists by vowing to lob a missile into the men’s room of the Kremlin if the Soviets misbehaved. Goldwater, a major-general in the air force reserve, aroused widespread alarm, especially among alumni of the Manhattan bomb project. Goldwater’s nuclear bravado brought about an unprecedented – and still unmatched – mobilisation of scientists in support of Lyndon Johnson. To promote their cause in broadcasts and newspaper ads, they raised more than $500,000, a respectable sum in those early days of political mega-spending. But the Johnson landslide produced morning-after remorse among the elders of the scientific community. Even those who had organised the political incursion argued that the Goldwater threat was a one-off. Never again, they vowed; and science has, on the whole, abstained from electoral politics. And governments, by and large, have been financially supportive of science, as well as courteous in their social and administrative relations with the scientists who look after the community’s affairs in Washington. There have been only two serious conflicts between the White House and the scientific community.

The first came to a head in 1973, when Nixon fired all the experts from the White House science office and associated advisory committees, established by Eisenhower during the Sputnik crisis of 1957. Some of these advisers had been appointed by Kennedy or Johnson, and Nixon suspected them – correctly – of opposing his plans for missile defence and a federally subsidised supersonic commercial airliner. One of the advisers, Richard Garwin, a renowned physicist who chaired a White House study of supersonic flight, testified against the project in Congress, to the outrage and astonishment of Nixon’s gang. Garwin later explained that his loyalty was to truth and sound policy, not to the president. ‘Those bastards, we’ve got to cut them back,’ the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman declared. For the scientific community, an indispensable link between scientific thinking and government decision-making had been severed. The campaign to restore it began immediately: three years later, Gerald Ford welcomed scientists back to the White House.

Tight-lipped loyalty to the president was never again abandoned by those scientists called to serve. Reagan’s bashing of the University of California when he was governor of the state raised fears that he might do without the science-advisory apparatus when he arrived in the White House. But after a shaky start, Reagan, too, was good to science, boosting the budget and giving the go-ahead to the grandiose but ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, the multi-billion-dollar dream machine of particle physicists – many of them prominent in the arms-control wing of the scientific community. Though Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defence and expanded nuclear-weapons programmes alarmed them and other scientists, his generosity with money and ceremonials counted for a lot with the Washington-based leaders of the community. Frank Press, who served as Jimmy Carter’s science adviser and then as president of the National Academy of Sciences, summed it up to me as follows: ‘Reagan looks very good in his support of science. At first he was terrible, then he came up nicely.’ In expectation of a place for science at the table, and fear of not getting it, the National Academy of Sciences regularly urges presidential candidates to select a science adviser to report for duty on Inauguration Day. The adviser, says the academy, should be a confidant of the president, and closely consulted in the selection of officials for the government’s science and technology agencies. The first and second presidents Bush ignored this advice, leaving the White House science job unfilled for several months; Bill Clinton’s science adviser was on board at the start. But arriving early or late, no presidential science adviser has ever cracked the inner political circle at the White House. To the extent that any of them was politically seasoned, it was in academic politics, pillow-fighting compared to Washington’s big-money, career-crunching, round-the-clock combat.

The second conflict between the White House and science brings us to the presidency of George W. Bush. That he has earned the enmity of the scientific establishment is no simple feat, given science’s long-standing disposition to get along with the White House. Serving as Bush’s science adviser since near the beginning of his first term is a self-described Democrat, John Marburger III, a physicist and former university president. Unstinting in his repeated defence of the Bush administration’s maltreatment of science, Marburger is described by Mooney as ‘a rather tragic figure’. Yes, but Marburger is a predictable creation of the politics of American science, and if he weren’t there serving Bush, another like him would be. Science dotes on its connections to money and honour in Washington.