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What About Congress?

Electing a proscience president is only half the battle.

By | April 1, 2008

<figcaption> Credit: © 2005 David Monniaux / wikimedia.org</figcaption>
Credit: © 2005 David Monniaux / wikimedia.org

Science has been repeatedly kicked in the face by a callous and arrogant administration for the past seven years.

OK. Now that we have that requisite, albeit trite, statement out of the way, let's seriously consider the 2008 elections.

The never-ending presidential campaigning has left us all a little parched for substance; it has sparked a nauseating stream of vapid speculation and junior-high-level balderdash. To their credit, several media outlets, scientific organizations, and advocacy groups have launched Web sites that detail the science and health views of the presidential candidates during the early primaries and called for candidates to address science issues. But substance is not the only thing currently lacking in the campaign coverage. We've been completely ignoring the 470 congressional races also taking place.

A failure to act responsibly is a dereliction of duty to the constituents who elected them, regardless of party affiliation.

When it comes to Congress, the scientific community has much to be angry about. For example, just this past year, individual members spent much effort parroting an ultimately hollow call for supporting American innovation through science education and funding. Scientists often talk about President Bush's failures to support science, but it's Congress who drafts the final numbers and they have not significantly increased science funding since the end of the doubling of the NIH budget. In the end, Congress passed a collective spending bill that funded science across all agencies at lower levels than the president's budget proposal.

Besides failing to keep science funding levels on par with inflation and the well-publicized (but profound) instances of politicization of science, individual members of Congress have been guilty of failing to support progressive science and health legislation, obstructing oversight of dubious government programs, and supporting legislation that shows grave indifference or even contempt for the scientific enterprise.

When it comes to contempt for science there are few Congressional acts that top the decision to rid Capitol Hill of its dedicated science and technology advisors by dismantling the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. Much has been written about the demise of OTA, but years later, the narrow-minded view that prompted the disbandment has not disappeared. Many of those members are still in office, and recently, while discussing the potential reinstatement of the OTA, a fellow member of Congress told Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ): "Well, we've already done some things for scientists this year." This preposterous belief that nonpartisan professional science advice is a gift for scientists is not uncommon in Washington, DC.

There are obvious examples of members of Congress undermining science, including misrepresentation of the promise of adult stem cell research over embryonic stem cell research, failure to significantly increase automobile fuel-efficiency standards for 30 years, and ridiculous denials of global climate change. But there are less obvious, and perhaps more insidious problems. These include cases in which congressional offices have launched enquiries into individual scientists who happen to work in areas that some Congress members find distasteful (such as spread of sexually transmitted diseases). And instances in which representatives supported discredited education policies (such as intelligent design and abstinence-only education).

Perhaps the most insidious example I can recall is the passing of the Data Quality Act, which was slipped into a large appropriations bill in 2000, and which requires federal agencies to field challenges to information released by the federal government in the name of "sound science." On the surface, the Data Quality Act seeks to ensure that information released by the government is reliable. That's good. In practice, however, it has become a tool for companies to challenge the scientific validity of government reports and new regulations by requiring absolute certainty in scientific data. That's bad.

Whether the misguided stances of congressional members are a result of ignorance, blind ideology, or knee-jerk support of corporate interests, is irrelevant. A failure to act responsibly is a dereliction of duty to the constituents who elected them, regardless of party affiliation. Whatever you might think, failing to support science is not the exclusive purview of either political party. Many mistakenly thought that the shift in power in favor of the Democrats after the 2006 election would fix all of Congress' science indiscretions. While many of the members who lost reelection or retired were bad on science issues, and things certainly have improved as a result, Congress continues to fail science. OTA was not brought back, we still have the Data Quality Act, science funding is still too low, the president's limitations on funding embryonic stem cell research were not overturned, and we still haven't seen an energy bill that will do something substantial to curb global warming. The list is enormous, and therefore we need more serious change.

Where do we start? Step one is figuring out where your representatives stand. Besides obvious flip-flopping and news-grabbing controversy, it is hard to determine the positions and records of individual Congress members on many issues. The vile campaign ads that pollute local airwaves don't help the situation. Yes, your Congress representative might have voted against a measure to save your beloved eastern striped wood sprite, but a political-attack ad will never reveal that they voted against it because the measure also cut funding for children's health insurance programs.

Since there is no current source for unbiased, nonpartisan information, the scientific community should do what it does best: Create one. To facilitate this, Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) launched the Science Health and Related Policies Network (SHARP, http://sharp.sefora.org) a Wikipedia-like Web site that tracks the science and health positions of current members of Congress and candidates. If each reader adds a fact or two to the site, we can create an unparalleled resource for holding representatives responsible for their actions. You don't need to join the organization to participate, but you have to participate in the process if you want to see change.

If we can smash atoms, sequence genomes, probe space, and unravel disease, we can figure out how to make a difference in Washington, DC.

Michael Stebbins is the director of biology policy for the Federation of American Scientists, president of the SEA Action Fund, and the author of Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science's Taboos Confronted.

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