Hard Science

by Chris Mooney | April 23, 2008

The idea that the Bush administration has placed science under attack is so commonplace now that it's almost cliché. It's hard to think of a government agency staffed by scientists that has not seen voluminous scandals over the past several years involving either the suppression and twisting of information or the intimidation of researchers. The most explosive instances involve climate change and reproductive health, but more obscure matters--like, say, how to protect the threatened marbled murrelet--have scarcely been immune.

So scientists are resisting, right? Well, there are a few pro-science organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, that ritually denounce the abuse; angry statements have been signed by Nobel laureates and other eminences; congressional hearings have been held; and government reforms have been proposed to curtail future misbehavior. But, when it comes to real political action--engaging in strategic communication campaigns on hot-button issues, rating politicians based on their science records, even trying to unseat some of science's greatest enemies and support friendlier candidates--scientists have traditionally tended to back away, and the last eight years haven't been much different. If the science community wants to reclaim the ground lost during the Bush administration--and there should be opportunity--it's going to have to accept that the old policy of political disengagement is showing its age.


To understand how American science wound up in this predicament, you have to hearken back to another era: the post-World War II peak of science's influence and popularity, following the creation of the atomic bomb and radar, when scientists were invited into the highest levels of policymaking. The political courting of science only increased following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. President Eisenhower, who spoke fondly of "my scientists," brought them into the Oval Office through the establishment of the high-level President's Science Advisory Committee. President Kennedy and his science adviser Jerome Wiesner, an MIT electrical engineer, also enjoyed a close relationship. Meanwhile, from the other side of the Atlantic came a famous cry that epitomized the zeitgeist: In a 1959 lecture, the British novelist C.P. Snow, who had been trained in physics and served as a government technical adviser, decried the "two cultures" gap between scientists and literary intellectuals and called for greater scientific influence in policy-making.

During these halcyon years, American scientists grew accustomed to public praise and government dollars. And, so, in an era of broad bipartisan consensus about the importance of science to the national future, a strategy of political detachment on the part of scientists themselves probably made sense--and, accordingly, took root.

Before long, however, science became a casualty of the increasing divisiveness of U.S. politics. In 1973, President Nixon fired his science advisers in part over Vietnam-era political differences--one Nixon insider had labeled the scientists "vipers in our nest"--a severe blow to science's advisory status in government. President Reagan's own science adviser, physicist George Keyworth, further diminished the credibility of the restored office by his staunch defense of the "Star Wars" missile defense program, which most scientists considered infeasible. By 1995, the Gingrich Republicans had waltzed into Congress and killed its scientific advisory office; they then proceeded to attack the conclusions of mainstream science on climate change and depletion of the ozone layer.

The world was changing; the government had not only stopped adulating scientists, it had actually begun working to diminish their influence. But, instead of ramping up defenses in response, scientists allowed themselves to be bullied, perhaps concerned about losing research dollars and programs if they went against the political tides. To be sure, there was one abortive attempt at a different, more directly political approach: In 1996, a group called Science Watch organized a system to rate members of Congress based on their science-related votes--precisely what any number of other interest groups on both sides of the aisle do, and unapologetically so. But, when the scorecard emerged, Democrats generally garnered considerably higher ratings than Republicans, leading--all too predictably--to charges of politicizing science. Once again, the science community retreated from political engagement; no further scorecards from Science Watch were forthcoming.


And so, even as the world has changed around them, too many scientists continue to behave as if it's still the late '50s--as if they have little need to press a political case. Unfortunately, the reality is that science finds itself in a pretty vulnerable position. It isn't just the Bush administration, either. At the state level, the whack-a-mole game with the anti-evolutionists never seems to end. The public, meanwhile, knows little, if anything, about science: When asked to name a scientific role model in a recent survey, the best Americans could come up with were the names of people who were either not scientists, or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Nor is the press any help: A Pew study recently found that, if you watch five hours of cable news, you can probably expect to see one minute devoted to science and technology.

But, despite these worrisome facts, science has probably never been more relevant to policy-making. Which means that, on contentious issues like climate change and stem-cell research, the science community's public reticence can have dangerous results.

Consider climate change. As has now been well documented, fossil-fuel interests have sponsored a sweeping campaign to sow doubts about the basic science linking human greenhouse gas emissions to rising global temperatures. It's the strategy the tobacco industry employed over many decades--special interests, supported by choice politicians, casting the scientific endeavor and its conclusions into disrepute and even, in some cases, attacking individual scientists. Yet, with some key exceptions, American scientists have been mostly flat-footed, letting their opponents shape the debate.

So how can scientists strap on the gloves? They can start by investing, through their major organizations, in mass-media initiatives to communicate the facts on issues like climate change. At the same time, through auxiliary groups, those who care about science should directly take on politicians with the most outrageous anti-science stances, such as Oklahoma senator and global-warming denier James Inhofe, while working to elect better candidates (including more scientists). Elected representatives ought to know there are consequences for attacking scientists and undermining scientific knowledge.

In an admittedly fledgling way, this has been tried--a group named Scientists and Engineers for America organized to target select races in the 2006 election and, more recently, has been training scientists to run for office and disseminating information on nationwide candidates' science policy stances. Meanwhile, an initiative with which I have been involved named Science Debate 2008 has organized much of American science in a call for the presidential candidates to debate science policy. (So far, no takers.)

Scientists seem able to organize behind the prospect of a science policy debate; but a still more overtly political tack will probably worry many researchers, who recoil from the messy political process--and who fear attacks on their carefully guarded objectivity. Furthermore, there has long been a culture in the world of science that disdains mere "popularizers" and those who shirk research for less "pure" activities: Everyone in science remembers what happened to the great public communicator Carl Sagan, who was denied membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Certainly, these kinds of changes could have trade-offs and negative consequences; and they might well bring science itself under political attack. But science is under political attack anyway, which is precisely the point. The only question is how long researchers are going to sit and take it.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and th author of The Republican War on Science.

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