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Sat, 21 Jun 2003 21:06:24 -0700
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Science Friction
The growing--and dangerous--divide between scientists
and the GOP.

By Nicholas Thompson
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.thompson.html

Not long ago, President Bush asked a federal agency for
evidence to support a course of action that many believe
he had already chosen to take on a matter of grave
national importance that had divided the country. When
the government experts didn't provide the information
the president was looking for, the White House sent them
back to hunt for more. The agency returned with
additional raw and highly qualified information, which
the president ran with, announcing his historic decision
on national television. Yet the evidence soon turned out
to be illusory, and the entire policy was called into
question.

Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you say? Actually,
the above scenario describes Bush's decision-making
process on the issue of stem cell research. In August
2001, Bush was trying to resolve an issue he called "one
of the most profound of our time." Biologists had
discovered the potential of human embryonic stem cells--
unspecialized cells that researchers can, in theory,
induce to develop into virtually any type of human
tissue. Medical researchers marveled at the possibility
of producing treatments for medical conditions such as
Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and spinal cord injuries;
religious conservatives quivered at the fact that these
cells are derived from human embryos, either created in
a laboratory or discarded from fertility clinics.
Weighing those concerns, Bush announced that he would
allow federal funding for research on 60-plus stem cell
lines already taken from embryos, but that he would
prohibit federal funding for research on new lines.

Within days, basic inquiries from reporters revealed
that there were far fewer than 60 viable lines. The
National Institutes of Health (NIH) has so far confirmed
only 11 available lines. What's more, most of the
existing stem cell lines had been nurtured in a growth
fluid containing mouse tumor cells, making the stem
cells prone to carrying infections that could highly
complicate human trials. Research was already underway
in the summer of 2001 to find an alternative to the
mouse feeder cells--research that has since proven
successful. But because these newer clean lines were
developed after Bush's decision, researchers using them
are ineligible for federal funding.

At the time of Bush's announcement, most scientists
working in the field knew that although 60 lines might
exist in some form somewhere, the number of robust and
usable lines was much lower. Indeed, the NIH had
published a report in July 2001 that explained the
potential problems caused by the mouse feeder cells and
estimated the total number of available lines at 30.
Because that initial figure wasn't enough for the
administration, according to Time magazine, Health and
Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson asked the NIH to
see if more lines "might conceivably exist." When NIH
representatives met with Bush a week before his speech
with an estimate of 60 lines scattered around the world
in unknown condition, the White House thought it had
what it wanted. In his announcement, Bush proclaimed,
without qualification, that there were "more than 60
genetically diverse stem cell lines."

After his speech, then-White House Counselor Karen
Hughes said, "This is an issue that I think almost
everyone who works at the White House, the president
asked them their opinion at some point or another."
However, Bush didn't seek the advice of Rosina Bierbaum,
then-director of the White House's Office of Science and
Technology Policy (OSTP). Hughes claimed that Bush had
consulted other top federal scientists, including former
NIH director Harold Varmus. That was partly true, but
the conversation with Varmus, for example, took place
during a few informal minutes at a Yale graduation
ceremony. Later press reports made much of Bush's
conversations with bioethicists Leon Kass and Daniel
Callahan. Yet neither is a practicing scientist, and
both were widely known to oppose stem-cell research.
Evan Snyder, director of the stem-cell program at the
Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., says, "I don't
think science entered into Bush's decision at all."

The administration's stem-cell stand is just one of many
examples in which the White House has made policies that
defy widely accepted scientific opinion. In mid-June,
the Bush administration edited out passages in an E.P.A.
report that described scientific conerns about the
potential risks from global warming, according to The
New York Times. That same week, the American Medical
Association announced its disagreement with restrictions
that the Bush adminstration has proposed on cloning
embryos for medical research. Why this administration
feels unbound by the consensus of academic scientists
can be gleaned, in part, from a telling anecdote in
Nicholas Lemann's recent New Yorker profile of Karl
Rove. When asked by Lemann to define a Democrat, Bush's
chief political strategist replied, "Somebody with a
doctorate." Lemann noted, "This he said with perhaps the
suggestion of a smirk." Fundamentally, much of today's
GOP, like Rove, seems to smirkingly equate academics,
including scientists, with liberals.

In this regard, the White House is not necessarily
wrong. Most scientists today do lean Democratic, just as
most of the uniformed military votes Republican--much to
the annoyance of Democrats. And like the latter cultural
divide, the former can cause the country real problems.
The mutual incomprehension and distrust between the
Pentagon and the Clinton White House, especially in its
early years, led to such debacles as Somalia and the
clash over allowing gays to serve openly in the
military. The Bush administration's dismissiveness
toward scientists could also have serious consequences,
from delaying vital new medical therapies to eroding
America's general lead in science. The Clinton
administration quickly felt the sting of the military's
hostility and worked to repair the relationship. It's
not clear, however, that the Bush administration cares
to reach out to scientists--or even knows it has a
problem.

Mad Scientists

The GOP has not always been the anti-science party.
Republican Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy
of Sciences in 1863. William McKinley, a president much
admired by Karl Rove, won two presidential victories
over the creationist Democrat William Jennings Bryan,
and supported the creation of the Bureau of Standards,
forerunner of today's National Institutes of Science and
Technology. Perhaps the most pro-science president of
the last century was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, a
former West Point mathematics and engineering student,
and later president of Columbia University. Eisenhower
established the post of White House science adviser,
allowed top researchers to wander in and out of the West
Wing, and oversaw such critical scientific advances as
the development of the U2 spy plane and federally funded
programs to put more science teachers in public schools.
At one point, he even said that he wanted to foster an
attitude in America toward science that paralleled the
country's embrace of competitive sports. Scientists
returned the affection, leaning slightly in favor of the
GOP in the 1960 election.

The split between the GOP and the scientific community
began during the administration of Richard Nixon. In the
late 1960s and early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam
War captured the sympathy of the liberal academic
community, including many scientists, whose opposition
to the war turned them against Nixon. The president
characteristically lashed back and, in 1973, abolished
the entire White House science advisory team by
executive order, fuming that they were all Democrats.
Later, he was caught ranting on one of his tapes about a
push, led by his science adviser, to spend more money on
scientific research in the crucial electoral state of
California. Nixon complained, "Their only argument is
that we're going to lose the support of the scientific
community. We will never have their support." The GOP
further alienated scientists with its "Southern
strategy," an effort to broaden the party's appeal to
white conservative Southerners. Many scientists were
turned off by the increasing evangelical slant of
Republicans and what many saw as coded appeals to white
racists.

Scientists also tended to agree with Democrats'
increasingly pro-environmental and consumer-protection
stances, movements which both originated in academia.
Gradually, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira show in their
recent book The Emerging Democratic Majority,
professionals, the group of highly skilled workers that
includes scientists, moved from the Republican camp to
the Democratic. Yet that transition took a while, in
large part because most professionals were still
fiscally conservative, few sided with pro-union
Democrats, and the Republican Party had not yet been
overtaken by its more socially conservative factions. In
the mid 1970s, for example, Republican President Gerald
Ford showed a moderate streak while in the White House
and reinstated the Office of Science and Technology
Policy.

Ronald Reagan oversaw a widening gulf between the
Republican Party and academic scientists. During the
1980 campaign, he refused to endorse evolution, a
touchstone issue among scientists, saying, "Well,
[evolution] is a theory--it is a scientific theory only,
and it has in recent years been challenged in the world
of science and is not yet believed in the scientific
community to be as infallible as it was once believed."
Though he aggressively funded research for military
development, he alienated many in academia with his rush
to build a missile defense system that most scientists
thought unworkable.

George H.W. Bush tried to walk the tightrope. He pushed
the Human Genome Project forward and elevated the
position of chief science adviser from a special
assistant to assistant. Yet he served during an
acrimonious public debate about global warming, an issue
that drove a wedge between academic scientists and the
interests of the oil and gas industry--an increasingly
powerful ally of the GOP. He generally sided with the
oil industry and dismissed environmentalists' appeals
for the most costly reforms. Yet he also tried to
appease moderates by signing the landmark Framework
Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro and
helping pass the Clean Air Act, which aimed to reduce
smog and acid rain. In the end, his compromising did him
little good; environmentalists attacked him, and his
rapprochement with liberal academic elites won him few
friends with social conservatives. Bush faced a
surprisingly tough primary challenge from Pat Buchanan
in the 1992 election campaign, saw his support among
evangelicals in the general election decline compared
with 1988, and lost to the Democratic underdog Bill
Clinton.

Newt Gingrich didn't make the same mistakes. When he
became the House Speaker in 1995, Gingrich worked
vigorously to cut budgets in areas with Democratic
constituents--and he knew that by the time he came to
office most scientists were supporting Democrats. The
speaker took aim at research organizations such as the
U.S. Geological Survey and National Biological Survey
and dismissed action on global warming. He even
abolished the Congressional Office of Technology
Assessment, which served as the main scientific research
arm of Capitol Hill. Gingrich claimed that OTA was too
slow to keep up with congressional debates; agency
defenders argued that the cut was fueled by partisan
dislike of an agency perceived as a Democratic
stronghold. Indeed, several years prior, OTA had
published a report harshly critical of the predominantly
GOP-backed missile defense project, the Strategic
Defense Initiative.

By the mid 1990s, the GOP had firmly adopted a new
paradigm for dismissing scientists as liberals. Gingrich
believed, as Nixon did, that most scientists weren't
going to support him politically. "Scientists tend to
have an agenda, and it tends to be a liberal political
agenda," explains Gingrich's close associate former Rep.
Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the former chairman of the House
Science Committee. In 1995, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-
Calif.), then-chairman of the House committee dealing
with global warming, called climate change a "liberal
claptrap." In interviews with The Washington Post in
2001, Texas Republican Tom DeLay dismissed evolution as
unproven, said that we shouldn't need an EPA because
"God charges us to be good stewards of the Earth," and
denigrated scientific Nobel Prize winners as "liberal
and extremist."

Ph.D. Phobia

George W. Bush embodies the modern GOP's attitude toward
science. He hails from a segment of the energy industry
that, when it comes to global warming, considers science
an obstacle to growth. He is strongly partisan, deeply
religious, and also tied to evangelical supporters. And,
like Reagan, he has refused to endorse the scientific
principle of evolution. During the 2000 campaign, a New
York Times reporter asked whether he believed in
evolution. Bush equivocated, leading the Times to write
that he "believes the jury is still out."

Bush has also learned from his father's experience that
siding with scientists gains him little politically, and
often alienates conservatives. Bush and Rove have tried
to woo portions of other groups that traditionally trend
Democratic--steel tariffs for unions, faith-based grants
for African-American ministers--but scientists are
different. They aren't a big voting bloc. They are
generally affluent, but not enough so to be major
donors. They are capable of organizing under the
auspices of a university to lobby for specific grants,
but they aren't organized politically in a general way.
In short, scientists aren't likely to cause the GOP
problems if they are completely alienated. Scientists
have almost never turned themselves into anything like a
political force. Even Al Gore, the apotheosis of many
scientists' political hopes, received little formal
support from them during the 2000 campaign.

Consequently, the White House seems to have pushed
scientific concerns down toward the bottom of its list
of priorities. Bush, for instance, has half as many
Ph.D.s in his cabinet as Clinton had two years into his
term. Among the White House inner circle, Condoleezza
Rice's doctorate distinguishes her as much as her race
and more than her sex. Consider also the length of time
the administration left top scientific positions vacant.
It took 20 months to choose an FDA director, 14 months
to choose an NIH director, and seven months to choose a
White House science adviser for the Office of Science
and Technology Policy. Once Bush had appointed a head of
OSTP, he demoted the rank of the position, moved the
office out of the White House, and cut the number of
associate directors from four to two. An OSTP
spokeswoman argues that the administration's decision to
move OSTP was inconsequential and that reducing the
number of associate directors was just a way of
"reducing the stovepipes." But geography and staff equal
clout in Washington, and unarguably signal how much the
people in power care about what you do.

Moreover, Bush appointed to one of the two associate
director positions Richard Russell, a Hill aide
credentialed with only a bachelor's degree in biology,
and let him interview candidates for the job of
director. "It bothers me deeply [that he was given that
spot], because I don't think that he is entirely
qualified," says Allen Bromley, George H. W. Bush's
science adviser, who worked for some of his tenure out
of prime real estate in the West Wing of the White
House. "To my astonishment, he ended up interviewing
some of the very senior candidates, and he did not do
well. The people he interviewed were not impressed."

Cynical Trials

When required to seek input from scientists, the
administration tends to actively recruit those few who
will bolster the positions it already knows it wants to
support, even if that means defying scientific
consensus. As with Bush's inquiry into stem-cell
research, when preparing important policy decisions, the
White House wants scientists to give them validation,
not grief. The administration has stacked hitherto
apolitical scientific advisory committees, and even an
ergonomics study section, which is just a research group
and has no policy making role.

Ergonomics became a politicized issue early in Bush's
term when he overturned a Clinton-era rule requiring
companies to do more to protect workers from carpal
tunnel syndrome and other similar injuries. Late last
year, the Department of Health and Human Services
rejected, without explanation, three nominees for the
Safety and Occupational Health Study Section who had
already been approved by Dana Loomis, the group's chair,
but who also weren't clearly aligned with the
administration's position on ergonomics. Loomis then
wrote a letter saying that "The Secretary's office
declined to give reasons for its decision, but they seem
ominously clear in at least one case: one of the
rejected nominees is an expert in ergonomics who has
publicly supported a workplace ergonomics standard."
Another nominee, who was accepted, said that she had
been called by an HHS official who wanted to know her
views on ergonomics before allowing her on the panel.

The administration has further used these committees as
places for religious conservatives whose political
credentials are stronger than their research ones. For
example, on Christmas Eve 2002, Bush appointed David
Hager--a highly controversial doctor who has written
that women should use prayer to reduce the symptoms of
PMS--to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory
Commission.

Bush has also taken to unprecedented levels the
political vetting of nominees for advisory committees.
When William Miller, a professor of psychology at the
University of New Mexico, was considered as a candidate
for a panel on the National Institute of Drug Abuse, he
was asked his views on abortion, the death penalty, and
whether he had voted for Bush. He said no to the last
question and never received a call back. "Not only does
the Bush administration scorn science; it is subjecting
appointments to scientific advisory committees and even
study sections to political tests," says Donald Kennedy,
editor in chief of Science, the community's flagship
publication.

Control Group Politics

Any administration will be tempted to trumpet the
conclusions of science when they justify actions that
are advantageous politically, and to ignore them when
they don't. Democrats, for instance, are more than happy
to tout the scientific consensus that human activity
contributes to climate change, but play down evidence
that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
(which they oppose) probably will have little impact on
the caribou there. But Democrats will only go so far
down the path of ignoring scientific evidence because
they don't want to alienate their scientific supporters.
Increasingly, the Republicans feel little such
restraint. Hence the Bush administration's propensity to
tout scientific evidence only when it suits them
politically. For instance, though numerous studies have
shown the educational benefits of after-school programs,
the Bush administration cited just one recent report
casting doubt on those benefits to justify cutting
federal after-school funding. Meanwhile, the White House
has greatly increased the federal budget for abstinence-
only sex education programs despite a notable lack of
evidence that they work to reduce teen pregnancy. The
administration vigorously applies cost-benefit
analysis--some of it rigorous and reasonable--to reduce
federal regulations on industry. But when the National
Academy of Sciences concluded that humans are
contributing to a planetary warming and that we face
substantial future risks, the White House initially
misled the public about the report and then dramatically
downplayed it. Even now, curious reporters asking the
White House about climate change are sent to a small,
and quickly diminishing, group of scientists who still
doubt the causes of global warming. Many scientists were
shocked that the administration had even ordered the
report, a follow-up to a major report from the 2,500-
scientist Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the
world's leading climate research committee. Doing that
was like asking a district court to review a Supreme
Court decision.

Experts in Exile

This White House's disinclination to engage the
scientific community in important policy decisions may
have serious consequences for the country. One crucial
issue that Congress and the Bush administration will
likely have to confront before Bush leaves office is
human cloning. Researchers distinguish between
"reproductive cloning," which most scientists abhor, and
"therapeutic cloning," which may someday allow
researchers to use stem cells from a patient's cloned
embryo to grow replacement bone marrow, liver cells, or
other organs, and which most scientists favor. When the
President's Council on Bioethics voted on
recommendations for the president, every single
practicing scientist voted for moving therapeutic
cloning forward. Bush, however, decided differently,
supporting instead a bill sponsored by Sen. Sam
Brownback (R-Kan.) to ban all forms of embryonic
cloning.

John Marburger, the president's current scientific
adviser--a longtime Democrat who says that he has good
relations with Bush and is proud of the administration's
science record--wrote in an email statement which barely
conceals his own opinion: "As for my views on cloning,
let me put it this way. The president's position--which
is to ban all cloning--was made for a number of ethical
reasons, and I do know that he had the best, most up-to-
date science before him when he made that decision."
Jack Gibbons, a former head of the Congressional Office
of Technology Assessment, calls Bush's proposed ban "an
attempt to throttle science, not to govern technology."
Harold Varmus, the former NIH director, believes that
"this is the first time that the [federal] government
has ever tried to criminalize science."

Another potentially costly decision is the Bush
administration's post-September 11 restrictions on the
ability of foreign scientists to immigrate to the United
States--restrictions which many scientists argue go far
beyond reasonable precautions to keep out terrorists. In
December 2002, the National Academy of Science, the
National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of
Medicine issued a statement complaining that "recent
efforts by our government to constrain the flow of
international visitors in the name of national security
are having serious unintended consequences for American
science, engineering and medicine." Indeed, MIT recently
abandoned a major artificial-intelligence research
project because the school couldn't find enough graduate
students who weren't foreigners and who could thus clear
new security regulations.

Unscientific Method

Like Gingrich, Bush favors investments in scientific
research for the military, health care, and other areas
that garner strong public and industry support. Indeed,
the White House quickly points to such funding increases
whenever its attitude toward science is questioned. But
for an administration that has boosted spending in a
great number of areas, more money for science is less
telling than how the Bush administration acts when
specific items on its agenda collide with scientific
evidence or research needs. In almost all of those
cases, the scientists get tuned out.

Ignoring expert opinion on matters of science may never
cause the administration the kind of political grief it
is now suffering over its WMD Iraq policy. But neither
is it some benign bit of anti-elitist bias. American
government has a history of investing in the
capabilities and trusting the judgments of its
scientific community--a legacy that has brought us
sustained economic progress and unquestioned scientific
leadership within the global intellectual community. For
the short-term political profits that come with looking
like an elite-dismissing friend of the everyman, the
Bush administration has put that proud, dynamic history
at real risk.

Nicholas Thompson is a Washington Monthly contributing
editor.

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