Q: Is Bush Science's Nemesis? A: No - Evolution News & Views

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Q: Is Bush Science's Nemesis? A: No

Kudos to Richard Gallagher & Alison McCook from The Scientist for being gutsy enough to do an even-handed piece on President Bush's record on science, and for asking the question in Gallagher's editorial, "Is Bush Science's Nemesis?" in more than the conventional rhetorical fashion. McCook's piece "Sizing Up Bush on Science" answers with a resounding "no," or at least no more than past presidents, including Bill Clinton.

As McCook notes:

Part of what may be fueling many scientists' distress over the Bush administrations attitude to science is that many scientist 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 [Jane] Lubchenco, now at Oregon State University. "Some scientists seem to imply that 'if 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 [Dan]Sarewitz [director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University]."

Indeed, McCook illustrated a close parallel in how Bush & Clinton chose to deal with two environmental issues.
Even Bill Clinton-now admired by many scientists for overseeing the doubling of 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...Clinton also publicly denounced the creation of embryos for research.

Similarly, McCook notes that "the Bush administration acknowledges that climate change is occurring and that the change is likely the result of human activities," and has spent $29 billion on climate programs between 01' and 06', but as she also astutely observes:
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....The delay in decision making about climate change "doesn't really have anything to do with debates over science, but had to do with conflicts over values and interests," says Sarewitz.
As Roger Pielke, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, noted in McCook's article, "Politics intermixing with science 'is a phenomenon that has deeper roots than the current administration.'"

But beyond maintaining status quo with the past, McCook notes that Bush has done many good things for science. Citing an analysis from the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 that funding for biomedical research doubled between 1994 and 2003, McCook notes that private sector R&D funding reached its highest levels of close to $40 billion in 2005, encouraged partly by the administration's "R&D tax credit that lets companies write off a portion of their R&D expenses." What's more, McCook gives the administration credit for the Critical Paths Initiative at the FDA, which aims at better predicting "which research will most likely yield drugs and devices," noting that close to half of investigated products fail in late-stage trials, taking money that could otherwise be used for research and increasing the cost of development.

Perhaps one of the best insights from McCook's article is that many in the life sciences community, not used to high levels of scrutiny during the years of massive NIH funding increases, are now chafing because they are experiencing what scientists in other fields have experienced all along. As Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, noted in McCook's article, "So far, most of [biologists'] experience with Congress has been showing up and asking for money and going home." Daniel Kevles, science historian at Yale University, says in McCook's article, that politicians now spend "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." Couple this with the NIH budget transition from flush to flat and the increase in biologists seeking positions and the perception is that they are somehow under assault and the situation seems dire, but this is merely a matter of adjustment that other fields have had to accommodate. As Kevles, put it "there's nothing written in the laws of man or nature that says funding appropriations have to go up in proportion to the demand." Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the AAAS, was more blunt saying that, "[m]any other disciplines have a hard time sympathizing about [an NIH budget of $28 billion] not being enough."

Some political rancor is brought on by scientists own actions. Citing an example from the 2004 election of "Scientists and Engineers for Change" who endorsed Democratic candidate John Kerry, Pielke said, "When scientists publicly align themselves with Democrats, some Republicans may suspect scientists of having an agenda."

Observing that politicians have to balance competing interests McCook acknowledges that there is a moral dimension to many of the debates involving science. As my colleague Wesley Smith has noted with regards to embryonic stem cell research, while science can answer questions about capabilities, it cannot answer questions about the morality of an action. To do so is to commit the genetic fallacy of deriving an "ought" from an "is". McCook put it this way:

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.
Bush is hardly the first president to legislate based on his personal moral views. The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the war on poverty and the creation of welfare all grew out of the personal moral views of presidents, legislators and citizens.

In closing, McCook gives a historical perspective, noting that in the late 19th century "some politicians (including southern Democrats) argued that funding of basic science that had no direct benefit to the nation's farmers was a misuse of federal dollars and best left in the hands of private funders." Bush has gone well beyond this minimalist approach to funding, but this highlights the erroneous assumption that all science rides on the wheels of federal funding and thereby the back of the federal taxpayers. Bush's approach to science has been to free up industry to make advances and not burden the taxpayer with the cost. Contrary to what Chris Mooney says in The Republican War on Science, Daniel Kevles, science historian at Yale University, says in McCook's article that "[a]nyone who believes that political interference with American science is worse now than ever before has 'some degree of historical ignorance.'" So I would like to take this opportunity to give Chris Mooney the Historical Ignorance of Science Award for his particularly near-sighted and selective reading of history and recommend Pamela Winnick's book A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion to see how science has been co-opted and abused by the Left as well.