Sizing Up Bush on Science

Is the 43rd President of the United States really science's worst-ever enemy? By Alison McCook ARTICLE EXTRAS Related Articles: Enemies of the State Bush's isn't the only administration to use science selectively. Here's a sampling of previous incidents. Science and the President Is Bush science's nemesis? Or are we being unreasonably rough on his record? Let's get Political: President Bush has done his fair share of interfering

Alison McCook
Oct 1, 2006

Is the 43rd President of the United States really science's worst-ever enemy?
By Alison McCook

On a typical day in the Oval Office, the US president, tired of simply watering down reports and testimony...

To many of the scientists who have been bemoaning what they call an attack on science by the current administration, led by George W. Bush, this may sound like a scenario from the not-so-distant future. It's not. Richard Nixon declared "war" on cancer and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but he also severely punished scientists who didn't share his views. He created an "Enemies List" that included scientists he opposed. And when his scientific advisors criticized the president's beloved Antiballistic Missile System, and voiced their opposition to the Vietnam War, he fired them and abolished the office of science advisor to the president.

Still, under the current administration, critics say there are more abuses of science for political purposes, the abuses are more egregious, and politics has infiltrated more aspects of research than ever before. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Bush and his appointees "threaten to undermine" the country's "impressive history of investing in scientific research and respecting the independence of scientists." Many scientists are concerned about Bush's stances on embryonic stem cell research and global warming, and discussions about the administration often turn to frustration and rancor. Preeminent scientists have also publicly criticized Bush's treatment of science. "What's unusual about the current epidemic is... how deep the practice cuts; in particular, the way it now invades areas once immune to this kind of manipulation," wrote Science editor Donald Kennedy in a 2003 editorial.

But, to some, it's unclear whether the list of abuses of science that has piled up in recent years truly trumps the record of previous administrations. Public and private funding for biomedical research is at a record high, and hardly anyone disputes that the current administration has done a lot to support industry science. According to John Marburger, Bush's science advisor, allegations that Bush is harder on science than previous commanders-in-chief are "off the mark and are based on incomplete knowledge of the administration's actions and positions."

Instances of the Bush White House misusing science certainly exist, "but it's important to keep in mind that these issues are focused on a very small part of the enterprise," says Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University in Tempe. "This is not a comprehensive assault on science."

THE ALLEGATIONS: ABUSE AND MISUSE

The Union of Concerned Scientists would disagree. Nearly two years ago, the UCS began collecting signatures from scientists who oppose the Bush administration's misuse of science. That list now contains more than 9,000 names.

The allegations: Cherry-picking, distorting, and withholding data

The UCS Web site has also compiled a list of reported Bush administration abuses, ranging from adding information linking breast cancer to abortion on a National Cancer Institute Web site (despite scientists' objections), suppressing reports about climate change and publicly misrepresenting the data, and dismissing from advisory panels scientists whose views oppose those of the administration. "When you get to the 10th, or 20th incident [of politics interfering with science], and they're in six or seven different areas," it starts to feel pervasive, says Sidney Shapiro of Wake Forest University. The current administration has been "egregious in cherry-picking information, distorting information, and withholding information" in a way that has "far exceeded" previous presidencies, according to Jane Lubchenco, former president of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the International Council for Science.

In general, however, the word "abuse" is sometimes overused in this discussion, Sarewitz notes. The list of examples of abuse of science gathered by the UCS includes an incident involving a panel charged with setting safe levels of lead in drinking water, when staff-picked scientists were replaced by people with ties to the lead industry. According to Sarewitz, there is a big difference between altering scientific conclusions and putting someone from the private sector on an advisory board. The first instance is a clear manipulation of science and the scientific process, he says, while the second is not.

Critics say that real instances of abuse of science during the Bush administration abound. In an oft-cited example, the Food and Drug Administration defied precedent and ignored the advice of its panel of experts to originally reject the over-the-counter use of the Plan B contraceptive in 2004, saying the decision was based partly on science (namely, the lack of scientific data about the drug's effects on sexual behavior in young women) - a false claim, given that the scientific consensus was to approve the drug. This and other incidents in which politics has interfered with science have concerned scientists, and rightly so, says Daniel Greenberg, author of Science, Money, and Politics, among other works.

Many other disciplines have a hard time sympathizing that $28 billion in NIH funding isn't enough, says Kei Koizumi

Still, Shapiro admits that it's difficult to measure whether the interference of politics in science is any more pervasive than during previous administrations, given that many incidents were likely kept secret. And yet, history is riddled with presidents' attempts to ax or ignore science and scientists who didn't agree with them. Politics intermixing with science "is a phenomenon that has deeper roots than the current administration," says Roger Pielke, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado.

For example, James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, recently caused a media firestorm when he said the current Bush administration asked him to stop speaking publicly about the dangers of global warming. But Hansen had been dealing with this problem for nearly 20 years, when the White House Office of Management and Budget, under George H.W. Bush, altered Hansen's official testimony about climate change to minimize the problem.

Even Bill Clinton - now admired by many scientists for overseeing a doubling in the NIH budget, among other measures - appeared to ignore science for his own political gain. In 1997, the EPA's science advisory board recommended that Congress immediately consider ways to reduce emissions of mercury because of its effect on health and the environment. The Clinton administration delayed release of a scientific report about the dangers of mercury for more than a year, and didn't issue recommendations to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants (the largest source) until three years later, the day after then-vice president Al Gore conceded the 2000 election to current president George W. Bush. However, the EPA set forth a proposal to cut emissions by a drastic amount, which Clinton perhaps knew Bush would have to loosen, enabling his opponents to decry his environmental record. Clinton also publicly denounced the creation of embryos for research.

And it's not just 20th and 21st century politicians who've been tough on science: In the later 19th century, some politicians (including southern Democrats) argued that funding of basic science that had no direct public benefit to the nation's farmers was a misuse of federal dollars and best left in the hands of private funders, which led to significant cutbacks in federal funding. Imagine trying to do basic research in that climate, says Daniel Kevles, a science historian at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Anyone who believes that political interference with American science is worse now than ever before has "some degree of historical ignorance," Kevles notes.

BIOLOGY UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT

What may be adding to the perception that the Bush administration is harder on science than ever before is that in recent years, biology has borne the brunt of political interference in science, which is a decidedly unfamiliar experience for many life scientists. "So far, most of [biologists'] experience with Congress has been showing up and asking for money and going home," says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists. Now, politicians spend less time talking about atomic energy and space exploration, and more time debating issues related to climate science, biodiversity, reproduction, and molecular biology. So for biologists, it's natural to wholeheartedly believe that politics is interfering more in research, because it's something they largely have not encountered for years, says Kevles. Especially for young scientists, who have only the NIH boom of the 1990s as a comparison, what's going on "is kind of a shock."

Moreover, the media can magnify the current conflict between science and politics, because journalists are more likely to latch onto stories involving emergency contraception or stem cells than supersonic jets, given that life science issues affect, by definition, people's lives. "There's something about life science and its relation to health that does tend to bring it home to citizens more than Star Wars and physics would," notes Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility, and Law Program at AAAS.

THE GOOD NEWS?

Despite renewed political interest in biomedical research, the field is doing well, by many measures. In recent years, the only scientific discipline to enjoy lush sums of money has been the life sciences, which has outpaced growth in all other areas. The pace of growth has now flattened (even decreased when factoring in inflation), but this pattern is "not entirely unexpected," given that the budget couldn't continue indefinitely at its previous pace, regardless of who was in office, says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the AAAS.

Flat funding has also been the state of things for years in every other scientific discipline, Koizumi notes. "The biomedical research community is beginning to experience some of the funding pressures other communities have gotten used to," he says. In other words, imposing flat funding on science is a decision that the government often makes, and may not necessarily reflect an "antiscience" attitude, says Greenberg. It's natural for the government to ask the biomedical community to take time to "digest" the rapid increase, and allow the government to focus on science that was "neglected" during the NIH boom, he adds.

Biomedical research is hardly neglected. According to a 2005 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, funding for biomedical research doubled between 1994 and 2003, even adjusting for inflation. The private sector has kept its R&D funding flowing in recent years, reaching its highest estimated level of close to $40 billion in 2005, only among companies that are members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The current administration has encouraged this growth by continuing an R&D tax credit that lets companies write off a portion of their R&D expenses. (The credit expired last December, however, and was also in place for much of recent administrations.) "The President has a very strong record of support for private sector science," according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), led by Marburger.

The Bush administration's prescription drug plan, Medicare Part D, which began in January 2006, has also helped industry science by increasing the number of people who can buy prescription medications, says Jayson Slotnik, the director of Medicare reimbursement and economic policy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Pharmaceutical companies "are more profitable now; they have more people using the products," says Slotnik. "They have more money and they can spend it more on R&D."

The current administration created the Critical Path Initiative at the FDA, aimed at updating the tools used to predict which research will most likely yield drugs or devices. Right now, close to half of investigated products fail in late-stage trials, says Amit Sachdev, executive vice president for health at BIO. "That's a real loss for science." Critical Path plans to improve that process, reducing the cost of development, and potentially freeing up more money for research, he says.

In addition, according to the OSTP, Bush's administration has worked to protect intellectual property and encourage technology transfer, all boons to industry science. Bush himself has said that "the role of our government is not to create wealth; the role of our government is to create an environment in which the entrepreneur can flourish."

Foundation spending on biomedical research has also increased in recent years, from $1.4 billion in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2003, according to the JAMA report. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds biomedical research along with education and other programs, awarded $330 million in grants by 1998; by 2005, that cumulative number had risen to $10.2 billion. The Bush administration has been "neutral to positive" towards foundation spending on research by not "getting in the way," says Hamilton Moses, first author of the JAMA paper, based at the Alerion Institute in Virginia, which monitors research productivity. "It is likely that [recent foundation spending] will have an enormous impact in the long-term in the way biological research is conducted," Moses says.

Still, Koizumi says that, for federally funded folks, the transition from flush to flat is difficult to adjust to, which can make the situation seem dire. Adds Kevles, "People don't think about how well they're doing compared with others; they only think about how they're doing compared with last year." The cost of research is higher than it has ever been, and biologists are likely producing more PhDs than can be easily funded - an understandable temptation, especially after years of soaring budgets, says Kevles. These constraints can make biologists "feel beleaguered all the time," he says, even when the administration is not trying to limit research. "But there's nothing written in the laws of man or nature that says funding appropriations have to go up in proportion to the demand," he adds.

Unfortunately, biologists who feel stifled by the NIH's stagnant budget have few alternatives, given that no other science-funding agencies have experienced major growth, says AAAS's Koizumi. (One exception is the Department of Defense research program, which has boosted its support of biodefense in recent years.) Even if Congress had to eventually curb the dramatic NIH funding increases, the transition might not have been so steep if the current administration had not decided to implement major tax cuts, start an expensive war in Iraq, and cut back on domestic spending overall, Koizumi notes. A different administration and different Congress might not have made these "big choices," he says, potentially leaving more money available to science.

Even if NIH funding stays flat, there are many signs that the government supports science, and takes scientists at their word. The scientific community has "done very, very well, and the federal government gives them a lot of leeway," notes Greenberg. Marburger says that he can attest from "personal experience and direct knowledge that this Administration is implementing the President's policy of strongly supporting science and applying the highest scientific standards in decision-making."

For instance, biologists have not been taken to task for promising huge, still unrealized benefits to spending taxpayer dollars on decoding the human genome. The two most expensive NIH awards in 2005 went to projects aimed at further decoding the genome, suggesting that, despite the lack of clinical results, the government still believes the advice of scientists who say this is an important project. "I don't have any reason to believe the administration is not committed to building on what the genome has taught us," says Frankel.

Biologists should try to keep a proper perspective on the funding problems they're facing, cautions Koizumi. "Many other disciplines have a hard time sympathizing about [an NIH budget of $28 billion] not being enough."

WHEN INTERESTS CLASH

Part of what may be fueling many scientists' distress over the Bush administration's attitude to science is that many scientists don't understand that politicians have to consider more than just science, and take advice from more than just scientists. This is how policy works, notes Lubchenco, now at Oregon State University. "Some scientists seem to imply that 'if the science says X, then the policy should follow blindly.' And I don't think that's true," she says. Scientists often act "as if the science automatically tells you what you should do, which it doesn't," and making a decision that's not responsive to scientific input doesn't necessarily mean a politician is "anti-science," notes Sarewitz.

In politics, certain facts are debated, which is an unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) experience to some scientists, but quite familiar to anyone who has inhabited the halls of Congress, says Kevles. Anyone who presents a view that interferes with a politician's vested interest will receive scrutiny, whether they're talking about science or not, he adds. "Politics is debate, it's negotiation... you can't just expect to issue some kind of declaration from the mountaintop."

In the case of global warming, the Bush administration acknowledges that climate change is occurring, and that the change is likely the result of human activities. According to the OSTP, the federal government spent $29 billion in climate programs between 2001 and 2006, more than any other nation. The science is not crystal clear, however: There are "very real" uncertainties about the science of climate change, and scientists have a tough job of communicating the problem in nontechnical language to the general public; when they don't, they leave the field open for spin doctors to minimize what's going on, says Lubchenco, whose work focuses, in part, on global warming.

The decision of how to handle climate change is about more than just science, given that politicians have to weigh many competing interests, Lubchenco adds. Of course, industrial emitters of greenhouse gases don't want regulations that reduce their profits, and the Bush administration is likely taking their viewpoint into consideration. Other factors are at stake, as well, because some regulations would have an impact on the economy. Furthermore, Americans "want to drive big cars," and aren't willing to give up many of the luxuries that the regulations could affect, says Greenberg. The delay in decision-making about climate change "doesn't really have anything to do with debates over science, but has to do with conflicts over values and interests," says Sarewitz.

Similarly, a scientific argument about the promise of stem cell research may mean very little to someone who is morally opposed to using embryos for research, says Sarewitz. Bush isn't saying science is wrong about the promise of stem cells; in limiting federal funding for stem cell research to projects that won't destroy embryos, he's making a decision based on his own view of morality, not on the science. And, he is the first president to allocate federal funding for stem cell research.

THE POLITICS OF SCIENTISTS

Scientists, by their actions, sometimes invite politicization, says Pielke. For instance, most scientists are Democrats and are public about it. In the 2004 election, the group "Scientists and Engineers for Change" endorsed Democratic candidate John Kerry. When scientists publicly align themselves with Democrats, some Republicans may suspect scientists of having an agenda, says Pielke. Furthermore, Democratic scientists are more likely to criticize a Republican president, given that they likely disagree with him ideologically, not just about science, says Sarewitz. An interesting poll would compare opinions of President Bush between Democratic and Republican scientists, to determine how much of an influence party affiliation may have, adds Sarewitz (who voted for Bush's opponent, John Kerry, in the last presidential election, and has donated money to the Democratic Party).

It's also always in scientists' interest to say there isn't ever enough funding for research, but those cries for money don't necessarily reflect a crisis, says Greenberg. "Anytime [scientists] don't get 110% of what they ask for, they act like doomsday has arrived," he notes. It's an understandable reaction. "No group that receives money from the federal government says, 'we have enough,'" he adds.

While some scientists may not be happy until Bush is out of the White House, others know that in the past, they have won many political battles, and with persistence, they can continue to do so, even in a contentious climate, says Kevles. In the 1970s, biologists dealt with public and political concerns about recombinant DNA technology, with critics suggesting that the technology could create powerful viruses or resistant bacteria, and also violated ethics by manipulating DNA. However, over years, scientists gradually helped craft a compromise that enabled them to conduct the research, eventually developing a series of life-saving medicines, such as recombinant insulin and erythropoietin. And last August, the FDA approved over-the-counter use of Plan B in women 18 years of age and older. Scientists can convince politicians and the public of their opinions, but it takes time and effort, says Kevles. "This is something [scientists] have to do day after day, month after month, year after year."

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVED CONTENT

ACCESS MORE THAN 30,000 ARTICLES ACROSS MANY TOPICS AND DISCIPLINES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archived stories, digital editions of The Scientist Magazine, and much more!
Already a member?