The defiance of science
More than 4,000 scientists have signed a petition accusing George Bush of twisting their work to further his political agenda. Andrew Buncombe investigates the war between the White House and the men in white coats
29 June 2004
Source: The Indipendent
For Michael Greene, there was little hesitation. The Harvard professor has spent much of his life working in the field of reproductive health, and when - in his capacity as a member of a federal advisory committee - he was asked his opinion about a new emergency contraception, he had few doubts about recommending that it be licensed.
And neither did the overwhelming majority of his colleagues on the committee, formed by the US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Indeed, the distinguished panel voted 23-4 in favour of selling the "morning after" pill Plan B without prescription. The FDA almost always follows its experts' recommendations.
But not this time. Despite the wealth of expert opinion, the FDA rejected the committee's view, claiming that there was insufficient data. Committee members were incensed. E-mails flew back and forth, talking of resignation and political interference in the scientific process. "People are very angry," says Greene. "The issue here is much larger than just Plan B. The decision is blatantly contrary to the science and the facts, and so blatantly politicised."
But critics say that this is just one modest example among dozens of the way in which the administration of President George Bush is manipulating and twisting science for its own extreme ideological ends. On issues from global warming to lead in drinking water and the alleged link between breast cancer and abortions, this administration, like no other before it, is turning science into a political battleground.
Suddenly, science is responding in what is almost certainly an unprecedented revolt against the government. Earlier this year, the non-profit group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), put together a petition that has so far been signed by more than 4,000 scientists, among them 20 Nobel prize-winners, demanding that the Bush administration change its behaviour. It also published a 38-page report detailing the government's scientific distortions.
"Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world's most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy," the report says. "Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle."
The result of this politicisation, say disgruntled scientists, has resulted not only in flawed policies but the very undermining of American scientific ideals - and even perhaps the nation's founding principles. What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper's Magazine, which he edits, has been "the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare... [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn't prove what it's been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party".
There are few issues where the evidence of scientific distortion is more apparent than that of reproductive health. On 22 January 2001, four days after his inauguration, Bush reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, which denies federal funds to family- planning groups that provide abortion counselling or services overseas.
Since then, led by its born-again evangelical leader, the government has waged war on anything that might be considered a "liberal approach" towards reproductive health. Condoms have been condemned as ineffective, and the administration has adopted "abstinence only" as the official approach towards sex education. Over the last three years, Congress has given more than $100m in grants to organisations that promote abstinence-only education.
A report published last year by the House of Representatives committee on government reform noted that this had only been achieved by manipulating the facts. "The Bush administration has consistently distorted the scientific evidence about what works in sex education," it said. "Administration officials have never acknowledged that abstinence-only programmes have not been proven to reduce sexual activity, teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Instead, [it] has changed performance measures for abstinence-only education to make the programmes appear successful, censored information on effective sex education programmes, and appointed to a key panel an abstinence-only proponent with dubious credentials."
If the administration can use science to turn common sense on its head - does anyone really believe that simply telling teenagers not to have sex will prevent pregnancies? - there is little wonder that it is prepared to manipulate the facts in more obviously "scientific" areas where ordinary people may be less equipped to decide for themselves. In one incident, the administration altered the National Cancer Institute's website to suggest that there was a link between abortion and breast cancer. The federally funded institute was forced to change the site after an outcry from scientists insisting that there was no such link.
It was in this environment that Barr Laboratories, the makers of Plan B, sought federal approval for their new emergency contraception. Though Greene's panel, along with the Non-Prescription Drugs Advisory Panel, voted last December to license the product, it was only this month that the FDA's acting director, Steven Galson, announced that he was overruling his experts. Galson denied that anyone outside the FDA had influenced his decision. "As is the case with a lot of these difficult decisions, there may not be agreement among people who are experts in data analysis," he said. He failed to mention, however, that 44 members of Congress had written to those on the committee urging them to reject the contraception.
James Trussell, a professor at Princeton University's Office of Population Research and a panel member, said that he believed that Plan B will only get approved if there is a change of government. "It is being done to reflect the philosophy of the administration. It is a very sad day," he said. "But this is not just limited to the FDA and just one decision. It's not an isolated thing. Bad policy is being made."
Indeed, the report drawn up by the committee on government reform lists 20 different topics, ranging from agricultural policy to ecological problems in the Yellowstone National Park, in which science had been twisted. The report concluded: "The Bush administration, however, has repeatedly suppressed, distorted or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals. These actions go far beyond the traditional influence that Presidents are permitted to wield at federal agencies, and compromise the integrity of scientific policy-making."
Critics say that the administration has adopted three strategies to twist facts. The first is to manipulate the membership of advisory committees, stacking them with people who share its views. Elizabeth Blackburn, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, found out in February that she and a colleague were not to be reappointed to the panel after speaking out in support of research on human stem cells. They were replaced by three new members who opposed such research. "Not one of the newly appointed members is a biomedical scientist," she said.
In other cases, people with links to the industries that the panels are supposed to be monitoring have been appointed. Elsewhere, people have been asked about their views on abortion and the death penalty and their voting record. The Bush administration is even prepared to block the appointment to international bodies of American scientists. In April 2002, it ensured that Robert Watson - a critic of America's energy policy - was voted out of his job as chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after being lobbied by the ExxonMobil oil company.
The second strategy is simply to misrepresent the truth. In August 2001, Bush banned federal funding of research on new stem-cell lines, saying that there were already 60 such lines available. He was not telling the whole truth. In May 2003, the director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) confirmed that there were just 11 such lines available to researchers.
The final strategy, outlined by Martin McKee and Thomas Novotny in an article in the European Journal of Public Health, is to block funding for controversial issues. A federal analysis on air pollution that might have come up with information uncomfortable to the administration was blocked, while researchers applying to the NIH for funds on HIV research have been told to avoid using phrases such as "sex worker", "gay" and "anal sex" in their applications.
The administration dismisses charges of distortion. In April, Dr John Marburger, the President's chief science adviser, issued a report rebutting many of the accusations levelled by the UCS and others. (The UCS, in turn, issued an equally detailed rebuttal of his rebuttals.) "The accusations in the document are inaccurate, and certainly do not justify the sweeping conclusions of either the document or the accompanying statement," Marburger told Congress. "I believe the document has methodological flaws that undermine its own conclusions, not the least of which is the failure to consider publicly available information, or to seek and reflect responses or explanations from responsible government officials."
In a telephone interview, Marburger did not deny that there may be individual cases where scientists dispute the view of the White House. But he said: "What I am denying is that there is a systematic practice of undermining science, or manipulating or distorting it." He also said that as science pushed at the boundaries it was bound to come into contact with contentious issues. He regretted that science had become politicised, but blamed groups such as the UCS for that.
Marburger's office sent me information claiming that the Bush administration has raised the funding of research and development to levels not seen since 1968 and the Apollo programme. It also said that the National Academies' National Research Council had come out in favour of Bush's strategic plan for global warming, which it had earlier criticised. The academy actually said that the plan was "much improved" compared with an earlier draft, but that commitments to fund many of the newly proposed activities were lacking.
Despite Marburger's assertions, what appears beyond question is that an unprecedented number of American scientists believe that science is being manipulated as never before. Their anger is now seeping from the pages of medical journals and reaching the mainstream.
Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell and the UCS chairman, said his organisation, as well as collecting the signatures of 4,000 scientists, had had many messages of support from people working for the government who were unable to make their concerns public. "In the first Bush administration, there were no problems. This whole issue is unprecedented."