The right's hijack of US science

March 12, 2004

Top scientists are alarmed by the willingness of the Bush regime - which deems a man who prescribes Bible study for premenstrual tension an expert on birth control - to place ideology above impartial advice, says Stephen Phillips

The White House's personnel chief was politeness personified, recalls Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, a leading medical research institution.

It was two weeks ago that the official contacted Blackburn, who was one of two members of the President's Council on Bioethics who stood against George W. Bush's blanket opposition to the cloning of embryos for therapeutic purposes and strict proscription of stem-cell research. "He said, 'We'd like to express our gratitude, but the White House has decided to make changes. We thank you very much for serving,'" Blackburn recounts.

"I said: 'Does that mean my tenure is terminated?' He said: 'Yes.'"

It was a bolt from the blue for Blackburn, who describes herself as a "full-time cell biologist with expertise quite relevant to the council".

Also eased out was her lone cohort in upholding mainstream scientific thinking, William May, emeritus professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University.

The dawning realisation that she had been ousted for her outspoken views was reinforced when she heard that her replacements were two politics professors from small, private liberal arts colleges and a paediatrician from Johns Hopkins - all of whom were known to share the Bush administration's Christian fundamentalist belief on the sanctity of proto-human tissue. "It gives me grave concerns for how biomedical policy is going to be made," Blackburn says. "This puts a serious hole in the scientific expertise and heft of the council."

Sitting on the panel was an eye-opener, says Blackburn, who clashed with conservative chairman Leon Kass "over the balance of science presented".

"In science, we try to be evidence-driven, so seeing how things were being twisted was pretty shocking. There was an end in mind, and things moved in a predetermined direction. It's been interesting to see how agendas hijacked (science)."

"It's Lysenko all over again," Blackburn says, evoking the spectre of Stalin's notorious quack science supremo Trofim Lysenko, who perverted Soviet research in the 1930s. "It reminded me of how a social idea can drive how you present scientific evidence."

The move to oust Blackburn from the council seems to belie any sense that the White House has been rattled by the blistering class action-style indictment of it by the Union of Concerned Scientists in mid-February, which accused it of many counts of subverting science to serve its own ends.

The statement, which called on Congress to launch an inquiry, has been endorsed by 60 senior US scientists, including luminaries such as David Baltimore, a leading Aids researcher and president of the California Institute of Technology; Harold Varmus, a cancer specialist and former director of the National Institutes of Health; Edward O. Wilson, the pioneering entomologist and Nobel prizewinner; and 19 other Nobel laureates.

The UCS rap sheet charges the administration with censoring scientific findings that run counter to policy goals or the interests of Republican Party corporate sponsors, propagating misinformation, vetting prospective appointees to influential advisory panels based on their political views and stacking such panels with ideologues and industry stooges with poor scientific credentials.

Abuses cited include efforts to distort experts' findings about climate change and supplant them with a discredited study written to industry specifications, suppressing evidence at odds with Bush's abstinence-only sex education stance and doctoring findings on toxic industrial pollutants.

Researchers have been particularly incensed by the misrepresentation of the scientific consensus on global warming and the role of industrial emissions and the favouring of the views of a handful of maverick contrarians and industry-friendly researchers. They are also worried that the Federal Data Quality Act, which by imposing an impossible burden of scientific proof (demanding virtually unanimous support) before regulations can be implemented, acts to shield corporate patrons from controls that academic research might recommend.

Moreover, they add that partisan tampering with a hitherto merit-based and apolitical appointment process has occurred not only in biomedicine, but also in reproductive health and sex education. In one example, W. David Hager - Jan adjunct faculty member of the University of Kentucky and author of As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now , who has prescribed Bible study for premenstrual tension - was selected for a federal panel reviewing contraceptives. In another, the founder of a pro-abstinence think-tank censured by the Texas health department for disseminating misinformation about condoms now helps frame sex education policy.

Also on the political radar of the Bush administration is academic advice pertaining to the Republicans' vaunted "war on drugs". William Miller, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and a leading drug policy expert, was passed over for the administration's National Advisory Committee on Drug Abuse in 2002 after being quizzed about his political allegiances over the telephone by a White House staffer.

Goaded by the UCS statement, a spokesman defended the White House's record, saying it embraced sound science. White House science tsar John Marburger added that the report was anecdotal, failed to pin down its sweeping allegations and read "like a conspiracy theory report". None of the documented incidents was disputed.

The UCS signatories include scientists similar to Lewis Branscomb, emeritus professor of public policy at Harvard University. The physicist is the former chief scientist of computer giant IBM. He was a registered Democrat, but he has never been politically active. His extracurricular career spans stints as director of the National Bureau of Standards, America's technology standard-setting body, under President Richard Nixon; advising the Reagan administration; and chairing a post-9/11 inquiry into technology's role in bolstering US national security. He's by no means a placard-waving serial petition signatory.

"This was the first time I ever signed such a statement," he says. "I felt that the threat was serious enough in terms of the ability of the scientific community to help the government make sensible decisions."

The seasoned technocrat is under no illusions about political considerations swaying decision-making. He personally recalls Nixon, infuriated by the opposition of Jerome Weisner, the president of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, to the president's pet atmospheric nuclear testing and supersonic transport projects, ordering the cancellation of all MIT grants (the instructions were quietly ignored). But the unprecedented pattern of behaviour exhibited by the current White House suggests a troubling departure in the annals of political manipulation, he says.

"Politics always plays a big role, but other presidents, as well as being political leaders, saw themselves as chief executives of the government, in which role all said we needed to base policies on practical analysis and the best views. Now there's a pervasive atmosphere that puts politics first," he says. "Factual data analysis is secondary or nowhere."

Other old-school public servants have spoken out, too. Russell Train, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Nixon and President Gerald Ford, wrote a letter to The New York Times declaring that he was never under the political pressures current agency leaders face.

Branscomb laments the failure of the UCS missive to elicit a more constructive response from the White House. In fact, Bush supporters characterised the petition as an "election-year attack" by an avowed activist group known for its "eco-extremist" and "anti-business" tracts.

Such adversarial rhetoric reflects a politically charged post-9/11 US landscape, says Amy Newhall, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and executive director of the Middle East Studies Association.

Concerns about anti-American and anti-Israel bias in Newhall's field persuaded the House of Representatives to pass a bill last October that would bring federally funded "foreign-language and area-studies" courses under the ambit of a panel charged with ensuring that they "reflect diverse perspectives".

Newhall fears that the proposed advisory board will have "very wide powers and (be) subject to almost no oversight". She adds that "most critics of Middle Eastern studies programmes come from staunchly pro-Israel think-tanks".

But there's a wider agenda, Newhall says. "It's bigger than a particular (course). Because of the anxieties surrounding it, Middle Eastern studies just happens to be vulnerable," she says, offering conservative critics a convenient "point of entry" to attack supposed liberal bias on campuses.

"There's a narrowing range of opinions that are permissible. When my colleagues are being called un-American, there's something seriously wrong - the definition of being an American is having the right to criticise."

Newhall says America's current political climate is redolent of the so-called culture wars waged in the early 1990s by Lynne Cheney, then director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other conservatives to promote a return to the classical canon and a traditional focus on western civilisation.

In addition to being married to the vice-president, Cheney remains a political force - she is chair of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which published a list of faculty members expressing unpatriotic sentiments after the 9/11 attacks. Such conservative advocacy groups have proved influential in shaping approaches to higher education in the Bush administration. The Middle East Forum's Campus Watch dossiers on pro-Arab Middle East specialists were behind lawmakers' calls for tighter scrutiny of the field, while the Traditional Values Coalition, a consortium of California churches, last year succeeded in sparking a review of Aids studies, including work on at-risk groups such as gays and prostitutes, that were, it claimed, wasting taxpayers' money Meanwhile, Cheney might be long gone from the NEH, but her legacy lives on with the revival of her controversial practice of flagging peer-reviewed grant proposals for extra scrutiny. This is seen as a way of promoting a traditionalist agenda. "Generally speaking, projects dealing with issues of ethnicity, gender and class tend to be flagged," says Pedro Castillo, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the NEH council.

It used to be a Marxist rallying cry that "everything is political", but academics are increasingly seeing the Bush administration as the unlikely inheritor of this mantle as ideology grips the campus in an ever tighter embrace.

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