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Politics vs science: round 2

POSTED 19 OCTOBER 2006

Political science, Round II
As the mid-term election approaches, a group of scientists and engineers is organizing to suggest that science and technology have something to offer to robot with pullquotepoliticians, and that it would be smart to involve scientists and engineers in politics. This does sound odd -- when was the last time a chemist or a biochemist or a geochemist rang your doorbell asking for your vote?

Nonetheless, several thousand people have joined the group, which has this mission: "Scientists and Engineers for America influences targeted elections at all levels of government to renew respect for evidence-based debate and decision-making in politics."

How could technical people help politicians make decisions to improve our world?

"Scientists know how to test theories, how to tell fact from fiction, and how to hold one another accountable. Smart leadership and policy should depend on similar processes."

Organizing scientists sounds like herding cats, but then the scientific community has been doing a lot of caterwauling about politics and politicians. On issue after issue, many scientists charge that politicians are bending, spindling and mutilating the study of the natural world:

Is global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," as influential Sen. James Inhofe said, or the defining environmental issue of our time, as a growing chorus of climate scientists is warning?

Is research with embryonic stem cells murder, or a promising source of medical treatments?

Are contraceptives being evaluated by scientific criteria, or has the Food and Drug Administration followed a political agenda and prevented access to safe contraceptives?

Is the Endangered Species Act a senseless impediment to development, or a last-ditch defense against species extinction?

Man in suit stands behind a podium, a photo of a wind power machine on wall in background
President George W. Bush addresses the Renewable Energy Conference in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006. As Bush touted futuristic hydrogen energy, critics charge that he has done little or nothing to promote alternative energy or energy conservation. Photo: The White House

Do politicians twist or ignore science?
One stream of complaints about politics messing with science comes from the press releases of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit group that speaks for its members, who work in federal and state science agencies. In recent months, the group has highlighted cutbacks in the Environmental Protection Agency's libraries. On Oct. 9, for example, it revealed that EPA "is sharply reducing the number of technical journals and environmental publications to which its employees will have online access." This action, the group says, will compound "the effect of agency library closures, meaning that affected employees may not have access to either a hard copy or an electronic version of publications."

In a written statement, EPA countered these claims, without specifically stating that the full line of subscriptions would be available: "The Environmental Protection Agency is committed to ensuring agency-generated materials are available to the general public, the scientific community, the legal community and other organizations. In fact, the EPA is providing comprehensive access to agency documents and materials through EPA's public Web site. Retrieving materials will not only be more efficient but also easier to locate by using the agency's online collection and reference services."

PEER executive director Jeff Ruch told us about many examples concerning the Endangered Species Act (it's illegal to harm species protected by the act by, for example, changing their habitat with a bulldozer). "Political appointees, with a phone call or a one-sentence e-mail, are ordering that findings that a particular species be listed be reversed, without explanation. In many instances, they leave the analysis intact, and just change the conclusion. It's hard to get more extreme than that."


Microscopic view of colonies (rounded, dense masses of cells) of human embryonic stem cells. The skinny cells are fibroblasts that help keep the stem cells in a primitive state. Photo: Copyright University of Wisconsin-Madison

Other battles, mixed decisions
One theme in the discussion about politics and science concerns the hallowed tradition which the U.S. government has used to get expert advice, says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists and a co-founder of Scientific and Engineers for America. "There is a concern that advisory groups are not meeting; the secretary of energy’s advisory council has been abolished. All of the avenues that were used to get advice are not there. And the panels that do exist have an unusually large number of people who are there, unrelated to their scientific skills. There have been a number of places where it does seem that the political affiliation of members has been asked for, and that is extremely inappropriate."

Another lively battlefield between science and politics concerns embryonic stem cells. These versatile cells can change into any body cell, making them a potential source of healthy cells for treating Parkinson's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease. In 2001, President Bush helped implement a compromise that made federal dollars available for the first time to study cell lines derived from human embryos. But he has since sided with those who consider using embryos for this research murder, not a source of life-giving treatments, closing off federal funding for most research on embryonic stem cells. As the election nears, however, some Republican House candidates, including Heather Wilson of New Mexico, are veering away from that position, throwing their support for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

At the same time, the struggle against teaching evolution in public schools, long a headline event in the political science prizefight, has been quiet lately, after some judicial and political decisions favored teaching science rather than "intelligent design" or other Bible-based notions in public school science classrooms.

Brilliant flashes of yellow and red churn across a map of the world A scary projection of carbon emissions and climate change from pre-industrial levels (1870) through 2300. This animation shows how the present (year 2000) global mean surface temperature change of 0.8 ° C increases to 7.8 ° C by 2300. Land warms more than oceans. Arctic and Antarctic regions warm more than the tropics. Note the extreme warming of more than 20 ° C over the Arctic by 2300. Click on still to view movie. Movie: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Change is also evident in alternative energy. Efforts to move beyond fossil fuels have had scanty administration support, even though alternative energy could reduce global warming and dependence on foreign oil. But on Jan. 1, the nation's first mandatory reduction on greenhouse gas emissions will take effect -- in California, often a bell-weather of American politics.

The idea that saving energy could improve the balance of trade and global warming has not lead the Administration to mandate higher energy efficiency in cars, appliances, air conditioners and furnaces. According to the New York Times, on Oct. 17 (see "Energy Shortage..." in the bibliography). "President Bush touched a lot of the right bases in a speech in St. Louis that focused on the urgent need for increased efficiency and alternative fuels to address the country's energy problems, including its dependence on imported oil. It would be helpful, though, if he could get his Department of Energy on the same page."

So are the political-science times a-'changin'?

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