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Will Science Be Hitting the Campaign Trails This Year?

AIBS Washington Watch, June 2004

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg

In an election year dominated by war and the American economy, an odd movement is afoot: Leading politicians on both sides are talking about science. The conversation revolves around two issues, namely, (1) the use and interpretation of science in policy decisions and (2) federal funding levels for scientific research.

Much of the discussion has been fueled by reports that accuse the Bush administration of suppressing or distorting scientific analyses. The earliest report on the issue, "Weird Science: The Interior Department's Manipulation of Science for Political Purposes," was released in December 2002 by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Resources. Eight months later, the House Government Reform Committee, at the request of Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), issued its own report, "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration."

The Bush administration was nearly mute in its response to the accusations until the release of another report, this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in March; more than 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed the letter accompanying the report. Although all three reports cite many of the same cases, the fact that the first two originated from Democratic members of Congress moderated media attention, alleviating the need for direct refutation of the accusations. Since the release of the UCS report, however, the White House has been vocal in its own defense. White House Science Advisor John Marburger III has issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the UCS accusations, participated in an online dialogue with the academic community, and spoken about the issue at several public meetings. In a recent statement to the Science and Technology Policy forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marburger said, "I can assure you that there is no intention by the Administration to undermine or distort the products of [the scientific] machinery."

Democrats aren't buying the administration's story. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) recently characterized the Bush administration's approach as "vending machine science." "The administration thinks it can pull a lever and get the results it wants. For the sake of short-term political gain, the administration is basing its decisions on weak science," he explained.

Veteran political analyst Morton Kondracke, executive director of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, recently wrote that Senator John Kerry (D-MA), front-running Democratic presidential candidate, should "pounce on Bush's sad record and be the 'science candidate' in 2004." Kondracke also issued a challenge to Congress to spend a few billion dollars to increase the Bush budgets for the National Science Foundation and other science agencies "instead of slathering pork into the pending highway bill."

Kerry has not been silent on the issue. "There are too many examples in this administration of politics trumping science not to be concerned," Kerry told reporters earlier this year. At an October 2003 speech at Dartmouth College in New Haven, Kerry cited multiple examples of what he calls the administration's "antiscience attitude": burying reports on climate change, having political appointees edit "uncomfortable information" out of reports, and stacking advisory committees with administration-friendly scientists.

Democrats are also arguing that the Bush administration's disregard for science extends into the funding arena. Daschle claims that the administration's proposed fiscal year 2005 budget for science and technology is another example of shirking the responsibility to invest in science. Not even all Republicans think the administration is doing enough. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) is disappointed with budget figures for science: "We're engaged in a huge misallocation of priorities to spend as much as we do overall and not spend more for science."

Some political observers believe that the trade-offs the Bush administration makes between science and politics are even more significant than the budget figures. As Nicholas Thompson of the Washington Monthly recently noted, "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."

Whether or not the issue has a significant impact on the election could be decided by scientists. With 4.7 million scientists, engineers, and technology workers in the United States, the science vote could be significant. Although it seems unlikely that all scientists would cast their votes based on this one issue, the administration's and Democrats' attention to the matter is justified: Had 80,000 voters in three states (Missouri, Minnesota, and Georgia) voted differently, or had 160,000 additional people voted for Democrats, Tom Daschle would be the Senate majority, not minority, leader.

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg (email: ) is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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