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Editorial: Science Living Dangerously

April 1, 2004

Timothy M. Beardsley, Editor-in-Chief

Relations between many senior scientists and the Bush administration have gone from sad to scary. In February, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement charging the administration with misrepresenting scientific knowledge and suppressing research findings at federal agencies, as well as stacking scientific advisory committees with people who are unqualified or have conflicts of interest. The statement, based on a 40-page report, was endorsed by 60 senior scientists, including 20 Nobelists and two former presidential science advisers.

The critics could hardly have asked for a more jaw-dropping apparent example of dissent quashed than the White House's decision a few days later to end the terms of two members of the President's Council on Bioethics. Both had opposed the views of the conservative majority on that body. One of them, Elizabeth Blackburn, of the University of California at San Francisco, has publicly criticized the scientific content of council reports about embryonic stem cells and the use of biotechnology to alter humans.

John H. Marburger III, current science adviser to the president, insists that the cases of alleged political interference detailed in the Union of Concerned Scientists' report, which involve topics ranging from climate change to reproductive health to nuclear weapons, have benign explanations. He also points out that some of the prominent endorsers of the statement signed it without seeing the full report on which it was based. The rights and wrongs of the bioethics council dismissals might likewise be debated. The chair of the council, Leon Kass, has vehemently denied charges that the purpose of the dismissals was to allow the appointment of people with opinions more congenial to the president's moral and religious views, calling the accusations "malicious and false." (The records of three new appointees to the council suggest, however, that they do indeed have opinions more congenial to the president's.)

The angry exchanges might tempt biologists who are having difficulty getting their findings heard in Washington to withdraw into their laboratories. That response would be dangerous. Good policy needs good science. Researchers might achieve more influence by patiently pointing out what science can say about the impacts of current policies here on Earth and offering their expertise. That will probably involve some tongue biting. Researchers from time to time forget to distinguish between their ability to predict — the ability that makes them useful to policymakers — and the values inherent in their often utilitarian habits of thought. Political leaders have different imperatives. In a head-to-head fight over values, the most powerful side wins, and that will usually not be science. Complaining might yield short-term advantage, but offering advice that does not presume a desired type of policy outcome makes it easier to search for common ground to build on over the long term.

Marburger has said he will continue to reach out to scientists in the wake of the latest denunciations. Biologists who would like to see more rational policies would do well to reciprocate that gesture, but also to monitor their areas of expertise for questionable behavior by the government.

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