Science: Scientists and Bush administration at odds
Science and politics have always been at odds to some extent, but the relationship between the scientific community and the Bush administration has been particularly contentious. Disputes over issues such as funding, the appointment of scientific advisers, and data interpretation have been raging for years, but a handful of recent developments suggests that hopes for rapprochement during the president's second term are already a thing of the past.
The battle between scientists and the Bush administration first came to a head in early 2004 when the environmental advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists launched a petition drive aimed at publicizing perceived abuses in the administration's use and oversight of science. To date, more than 6,000 scientistsincluding 49 Nobel laureates and 154 members of the U.S. National Academies of Sciencehave signed the UCS statement ["Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking"]. They charge, among other things, that the Bush administration has manipulated scientific advisory committees, altered and suppressed reports by government scientists, and misrepresented scientific knowledge in contentious areas such as global warming, air pollution, and reproductive health.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that a White House official repeatedly edited federal climate reports to exaggerate the degree of uncertainty about global warming ["Bush aide edited climate reports"]. On Tuesday, the UCS released a survey of fisheries scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Echoing an earlier survey of National Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, the new UCS survey found generally low morale and complaints that administrators, political appointees, and members of Congress had inappropriately manipulated scientific findings at the agency. Responding to the earlier NFWS survey, White House science adviser John Marburger said that he takes the concerns seriously, but "I don't see anything in the responses . . . that would suggest that there's something really broken. As far as I'm concerned," Marburger told U.S. News, "the administration is treating science the way administrations have always treated science."
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union joined the fray from another angle. In a report provocatively called "Science Under Siege: The Bush Administration's Assault on Academic Freedom and Scientific Inquiry" [PDF], the ACLU charges that the Bush administration's response to 9/11 has hampered scientific inquiry and academic freedom. The report says that censorship, "overclassification" of documents, and increased restrictions on foreign students and on materials and technology needed to conduct research have had a significant chilling effect on science, without increasing national security.
Still, Marburger may have a point when he says the system is still working. When the National Academies' journal PNAS planned to publish a paper analyzing the potential impact of a bioterrorist attack on milk supplies a month ago, administration officials asked them to reconsider, citing the potential of the paper to give terrorists ideas. The journal pulled the paper to consider the issue but published it ["Analyzing a bioterror attack on the food supply: The case of botulinum toxin in milk"] online on Tuesday, concluding in an accompanying editorial ["Modeling attacks on the food supply"] that the study would "provide valuable information for improving our ability to defend against terrorism" without telling potential terrorists anything they couldn't already find on the Web. There will always be a balance between openness and security. Scientists may be feeling a chill as a result, but in this case at least, they haven't succumbed to frostbite.