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Bush’s Science Policy
P rominent members of the scientific community have been at war with the White House for at least three years over allegations that it’s trying to impress an ideological agenda on the work of government scientists. So it should have been no surprise last year when 48 Nobel Prize laureates—who normally stay above such things—got behind John Kerry’s campaign for president. They came from the very top of the U.S. scientific establishment and included Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan- Kettering Center Center in New York and former head of the National Institutes of Health, and Gilbert Omenn, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
But the organization that’s done the most to expose and criticize Bush’s scientific policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), had published an open letter blasting Bush in February, signed by many of the same figures who were endorsing Kerry. For their criticism of Bush to be linked to another candidate was “unfortunate from our perspective,” says Lexi Shultz, UCS’s Washington representative.
The UCS positions itself as a watchdog against the politicization of science rather than endorsing any special point of view—even though its sensitivities tend to be on the liberal side. Stem cell research, global warming studies, and surveys of health in prostitutes, HIV-positive, and drug-addicted populations—all are good science, not ideological markers. “In the best of all worlds, science should be allowed to be science,” says Shultz, a stance that the practitioners she represents widely support.
The trouble is, not everyone agrees anymore, and not just along Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Beltway’s conservative think tanks. A good many critics on the progressive side—not so much scientists as public policy researchers who study scientific process and outcomes—argue that the U.S. scientific community is in denial since much, if not most, of its work is inherently political and pretending otherwise is only going to make it harder. Debates about genetically engineered food and the future uses of biotechnology and nanotechnology, not to mention the study of stem cell research and AIDS, have cracked open the protective shell that’s traditionally allowed scientists to operate in isolation from most political scrutiny.
Science is not just science anymore and if the work its practitioners cherish is going to go forward, they’ll have to embrace a more democratic model for framing, approving, and reviewing projects and allocating resources. Otherwise, critics warn, the right will use government’s control of the purse strings on most large-scale scientific research to mold a new agenda that decimates these fields and awards more and more of the kitty to projects with overtly military and commercial purposes. Moreover, the debate is not just about the utility of “pure” science and the social impact of sex research anymore. The rise of new fields like biomedecine and nanotechnology has shifted scientists’ focus to the basic building blocks of matter and human life, potentially enabling them to radically transform the natural world. If a way isn’t found to involve the larger community directly in the scientific decision-making process, “democracy” could be reduced to irrelevancy.
Based on an examination of documented actions by the Bush administration, reports from groups critical of its policies, and conversations with scientists affected by them, government-funded science is being subjected to tremendous, maybe unprecedented political pressure. Researchers—especially those studying anything related to abortion or sexual practices—feel intimidated and are afraid of losing their funding.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees most government-funded basic research, has applied political litmus tests to candidates for seats on advisory panels, sometimes including whether they voted for George W. Bush. (At an American Physical Society meeting in April, presidential science advisor John Marburger conceded that questioning candidates about their political leanings was improper and claimed the practice had stopped.) Along with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, HHS has been imposing more layers of review by non-scientists over research projects, resulting in what Shultz calls “paralysis by analysis.” HHS has been accused of secretly aiding far-right groups that want to shut down any research on sexual practices, birth control, and ways of dealing with drug abuse that don’t involve police action.
In other government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish & Wildlife Service, many scientists say they have been pressured to cook their findings to support pre-approved conclusions. Political appointees are being seeded deeper into these agencies as well as the National Institutes of Health where they can more closely monitor and restrict government and government-funded scientists’ work. HHS is also enforcing new policies intended to keep scientists who take its money from expressing independent opinions—for example, about birth control.
Meanwhile, Bush abruptly ended a series of post-9/11 budget increases for the NIH last year. Among the results at the NIH, say grant recipients, have been ugly, behind-the-scenes battles over funding between groups that ought to be allies—for instance, between researchers into HIV/AIDS in the white-male gay population and those studying the disease in the IV-drug using population, much of it people of color. One researcher who has been receiving grants from an NIH institute for over ten years says she may now have to look for funding in other countries. Others, too, fear that the Bush-era political pressures are precipitating a brain drain that will worsen as younger scientists decide that applying for government-funded grants is not worth the trouble.
Of course, much of this could reverse itself if a more liberal Administration takes the White House in 2008. But watchdogs like the UCS fear more is at stake. They are especially concerned about the NIH. Much of basic life sciences research conducted in the U.S. is concentrated in this huge complex of research centers, which for decades has enjoyed a remarkably arms’ length relationship with the government agencies that supervise it. Central to its reputation are its hundreds of advisory panels, which review and recommend projects and choose their members based on their standing in the scientific community.
The result is that the NIH has long been regarded as a kind of worldwide gold standard for scientific inquiry. By applying anything other than strictly professional criteria to who may serve on the advisory panels, some scientists say, the Bush administration is tampering with truth itself. The issue is not just who gets to punch the tickets of a collection of competing researchers, but who defines what is and is not scientific knowledge. The UCS last year responded with two detailed studies of “misuse of science” by the Bush administration. These counterattacks scored a good deal of press coverage and attracted support from prominent scientists and progressive lawmakers.
But there’s little evidence that the Bush White House has paid any price. When Kerry took up the issue in his campaign last year, it failed to make much of a stir. Afterwards, science advisor Marburger suggested that attacks by scientists during the campaign could hurt federal support for science funding. No NIH-connected scientist interviewed for this article indicated that the political pressure they felt under the first Bush II administration has eased up in the slightest during the second.
When the UCS, lawmakers, and assorted grant recipients decried the situation, the White House and its allies turned the criticism on its head. A report by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in 2003 on manipulation of scientific reports and advisory panels was dismissed as itself a politicization of science. When Andrea Lafferty, head of the religious-right Traditional Values Coalition, complained to mainstream media outlets about NIH-funded studies she considered morally objectionable, she knew well enough to drop the fundamentalist rhetoric and frame herself as a crusader against “abuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Is she a prude with no respect for scientific truth or are NIH scientists using government money to promote, for example, a “sex-positive” attitude in underage teens that is just as political as her pro-abstinence stand? “There’s an arrogance in the scientific community that they know better than the average American,” Lafferty told the New York Times last year.
Some observers with no special sympathy for the Bush White House tend to agree with her. One of these is Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Writing in Newsday about the Food and Drug Administration’s decision last year to forbid sale of the Plan B contraceptive pill, ignoring its own technical expert panel’s advice, Sarowitz noted, “The real problem is the illusion that these controversies should be resolved scientifically, and by scientists.” The stem cell controversy, for example, is not a technical, but an ethical issue, and “scientists have no special status or expertise when it comes to ethical decisions.”
If they want the U.S. to seriously address, for example, global warming, Sarewitz continued, Bush’s enemies have to stop “hid[ing] behind the sanctity of science.... The goals themselves can emerge only from a political process in which science should have no special privilege.”
What’s needed, these critics say, is that science be democratized. The advisory panels at institutions like the NIH, for example, arrive at decisions on the projects they review by “consensus,” which in this case means no votes are recorded showing what position each member took. So democratization means altering the decision-making process to be more transparent and accountable, says David Guston, Sarewitz’s co-director. But it also means creating new “border institutions” at the intersection of science and politics that make it more participatory. At present, he says, when scientific issues do bubble up into community consciousness, the key decisions have already been made. Guston suggests three steps to change this:
- Recreating the Office of Technology Assessment that advised Congress on scientific matters before it was abolished following the 1994 “Republican revolution”
- Making expert deliberations of scientific bodies more transparent, for instance by instituting recorded votes on advisory panels
- Creating more opportunities for the public to weigh in through the use of deliberative polling and citizens’ panels
The last point most directly addresses the issue of how to make science more democratic. It’s also attracted the most attention over the past few years.
Policy big-thinkers like Guston, lodged in a few university-funded programs and at the Loka Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, are looking to Europe—not exactly a favorite philosophical destination of cultural conservatives—for a model that the U.S. can adopt. In particular, they’re promoting Denmark’s “consensus conferences”: deliberative gatherings that have become a routine part of determining which scientific projects get public support and funding in that country over the past two decades.
Consensus conferences assemble panels of some 12 to 15 citizens—not scientists or advocates for one or another program—to study broad areas of scientific policy and social concern, listen to testimony, ask questions of experts, and then make recommendations to lawmakers. The Board of Technology, a Danish parliamentary agency, began convening consensus conferences in the 1980s and has since held 20 of them.
Typically, these panels stress social concerns over issues of how to divide up resources or balance different types of research that groups of scientists may advocate. One studied human genome research in the late 1980s. Its final report supported basic research in genetics, but also called for more research on the interplay between environmental factors and genetic inheritance and more research on the social consequences of science, notes Richard Sclove, founding director of Loka.
Loka held the first consensus conference in the U.S. in 1997, a study of telecommunications issues by a panel in Boston whose members ranged from “a homeless shelter resident” to a retired farmer to a “high-tech business manager,” according to Loka’s own account of the event. The panel spent two weekends discussing background readings and listening to briefings from scientists. Next, they heard ten hours of testimony from experts including computer specialists, government officials, business executives, educators, and interest group representatives, followed by a question-and-answer. Finally, they formulated a consensus statement recommending a comprehensive set of policy changes and presented it at a press conference at Tufts University.
Since then, the concept has spread. The National Science Foundation, before its budget was cut last fall by Congress, funded a series of consensus conferences set up by North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The first, in 2003, was on genetically modified foods, and recommended that the government tighten regulation of GM foods and require them to be labeled clearly. The NC State group then held two consensus conferences on nanotechnology—the new techniques of working with matter at the atomic and molecular level that’s being called the “next industrial revolution” and that could be used to reengineer familiar substances like gold and carbon into new materials.
Even though nanotech is a very new area that most people are still unaware of, the two panels “got it” and produced well informed and useful reports, says Patrick Hamlett, director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at NC State and an organizer of the project. Hamlett and his colleagues also experimented with holding some sessions between the participants face to face and some “keyboard to keyboard” over the Internet. They found that the participants were able to work together about as well remotely as they did in person, raising the prospect that consensus conferences could be organized across great distances.
The model attracted enough interest that Loka and other groups successfully lobbied Congress to include a provision calling for public involvement in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act that Bush signed in December 2003. The measure, which provided $3.7 billion for nanotech research, also called for “public input and outreach to be integrated into the Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events.”
Last fall, some of the new funds were used to organize a Loka-sponsored “community workshop” on getting the public involved in nanotech decision-making at Howard University in Washington, DC. It produced 13 recommendations, including providing public opportunities to influence the policies and decisions of the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office before the office implements decisions.
No one yet knows how large-scale consensus conferences would work in a big, heterogeneous society like the U.S., as opposed to a small, relatively homogeneous one like Denmark. No one has yet proposed giving them a formal role in decision-making here. Supporters like Guston and Hamlett allow that industry and the military might devise ways to game the system and turn the citizens’ panels into just another way of manufacturing consent to policies that promote profits rather than the good of the community.
But process transparency and attention from the public could give panels a good chance of maintaining their integrity and effectively bringing community concerns to bear on the direction of science. If successful, the result could challenge a lot of myths about people’s ability to understand and think critically about many important but arcane subjects. “The success of consensus conferences definitely undercuts the belief that public opinion on science is hysterical, uninformed, and molded by advocacy groups,” says Hamlett.
This discussion about democratizing science isn’t coming along at a convenient time for groups who want to keep the scientific community’s anger focused on the enemy in the White House. “I’ve attracted some fire” from scientists concerned about putting up a united front against Bush, says Guston. “They’re much more interested in having science their way— which means opposing Bush, but not considering how their vision doesn’t match up with democratic politics.”
At the UCS, Shultz says the best way to combat Bush’s ideological agenda is to work on building support among prestigious science organizations that command public respect. She points to a report by the National Academies of Science and Engineering in November that said quizzing candidates for advisory panels on their political affiliations was inappropriate. Meanwhile, the open letter that the UCS released against Bush early last year, which started out with 62 signatories, now has over 6,500, she says. Shultz points to the state-level proposition to provide funding for stem cell research in California that passed last November as a strong indication that the public doesn’t agree with Bush’s definition of what’s acceptable science. Thus strengthened, the UCS is calling for Congress and the Administration to adopt five steps to restore integrity to government-subsidized science:
- Protection of scientists who turn whistleblower when they spot political abuses
- Ensuring that government advisory panels are truly independent—including an end to political litmus tests for nominees
- Better scientific advice to Congress—for example, by recreating something like the Office of Technology Assessment
- Better scientific advice to the president—including restoring the White House science advisor’s status as an assistant to the president
- Increasing public access to scientific information the government funds, by fully enforcing the Freedom of Information Act and eliminating layers of classification that effectively keep much of it locked away
Bills have been introduced in the House covering some of these points, but they have not yet moved to the hearings stage. Whatever the public may think about Bush’s scientific agenda matters little, critics point out, unless they consider it important enough to make him pay a political price for his actions. That hasn’t happened, and won’t, they contend, until the scientific community is ready to adopt a more democratic process of deliberation that lets the people in rather than tacitly excluding them.
“The UCS and other critics are still hoping for a solution from science—that science will provide an escape from politics,” says Mark B. Brown, assistant professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, who is now engaged in a National Science Foundation-funded study, “Toward a Political Theory of Bioethics.” “Pointing to the urgency of the problems at hand is always a way to avoid dealing with more democratic solutions.”
Those “solutions” could include some things that today’s scientific community may find difficult to swallow, Guston warns: “If the scientific community insists on the advisory panels operating on consensus rules, they won’t get there. The point is to accept that science is politicized, and create conditions where it can be more democratized, more transparent.”
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist based in New York City.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.