Election 04 – A scientific case for voting Kerry

I try to address issues on this blog (when I get round to them at all) with the enthusiasm of a political nebbish, and the coolness of a scientist-in-training. The first is heartfelt, but not totally delineated, without a full comprehensive system behind it – I often know what I feel is right, but sometimes the rationales can seem a bit post hoc. The latter is as doubting and cerebral as I can manage (a fair bit of gut is also involved). The two can sometimes be set against one another, or one sacrificed to allow the other fuller expression. Today I am going to post with all of my heart and all of my head. (And some guts.)

There is an election occurring tomorrow in the USA. This is firstly, an urge to all those who can, to use their vote. I can’t; I’m a UK citizen. It is secondly, a call to all who value science and reason, to vote the incumbent out of office. This current US administration has shown an attitude towards the scientific community that can at best be considered disinterest and at worst contempt. A former head of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment has this terse assessment of GW Bush’s position on stem cell research: “an attempt to throttle science, not to govern technology.” It rings true of this issue, but moreover the wider treatment of scientists by the administration.

The White House, with its eyes on religious conservatives, decided in 2001 that new stem-cell lines would not be funded federally: the President’s justification was that there were already “more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines.” However this claimed figure was twice that of the estimate the National Institute of Health had originally put forward, an estimate that presumably was not felt to gel with their case, as it was met with a directed search for all cell lines that might ‘conceivably exist’, however risky or unpromising, which threw up this 60 best case figure. Currently only 11 have been confirmed by NIH as being safe and viable.

This was a case of finessing the figures, and taking one’s own authority of what was the important measure of stem-cell technology (conceivable lines rather than viable lines) over that of the largest research organization at your disposal. If anyone doubts that stem-cell research represents one of the cutting edge technologies that will massively change medicine, then correct your thinking. This cavalier treatment of an important scientific issue throws a spyglass onto the wider treatment of the science. But why would Bush hit on science? After all, Republicanism is not ideologically opposed to science or reason.

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.

But ideology comes second to pragmatics for many, and a game plan has been open, for those who would take it, for Republicans to hit Democrats in their core areas – and contrary to what some may push, science is a fairly Democrat-heavy enterprise. Couple this with the emergence of religious pressure groups as a political force to contend with, and a dedication to reason becomes to some an impediment to achieving political goals.

Cue Nixon (who abolished the entire White House science advisory team), Reagan (who revealingly stated the old canard: “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.”) Gingrich (cutting budgets at research organizations like the US Geological Survey because it hit Democrat jobs, abolished the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment – believing, as one associate put it, that “Scientists tend to have an agenda, and it tends to be a liberal political agenda,”) Tom DeLay (evolution unproven again, best to ignore environment science because “God charges us to be good stewards of the Earth” anyway) leads us inexorably through the past to the incumbent, who “believes the jury is still out” on evolution – really?

The administration has repeatedly devalued scientific offices in the government – posting non-scientists to senior roles, downgrading positions, letting posts go unfilled. Occupational Health has got a battering, with individuals who are not on-message vis a vis the administrations ergonomics position getting rejected for posts they had been approved for. Doctors who recommend prayer to deal with PMS are promoted. And scientists who approach the FBI with information about bioterrorism are jailed. Even on the most lenient analysis this is ass-backward, clumsy and totally counterproductive. Would the same approach have been taken with church leaders who found evidence of terrorists meeting in their basement?

This has not been met with silence, however. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement decrying how the “administration has undermined the quality of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government’s outstanding scientific personnel”. You can find the Full report here – including no small number of concerns, of which I present a few (summarised from this source)

Then there are those examples the UCS does not mention: the Corn Refiners Association and Sugar Association successfully lobbied Bush to pressure the World Health Organization to de-emphasize the importance of cutting sweets and eating fruits and vegetables in their anti-obesity guidelines. Two scientists were ejected from a bioethics council due to what they believed to be their views favoring embryo research. Data on hydraulic fracturing were altered so benzene levels met government standards after “feedback” from an industry source. Another study (sponsored by Florida developers) claiming wetlands cause pollution, was used by the EPA to justify replacing protected marshes with golf courses to improve “water quality.”

Nothing is so trivial that it escapes top administration advisor Karl Rove’s insistence on staying “on message”—from forbidding NASA scientists to speak to the press about the global warming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, to letting National Park Service gift shops sell books with the “alternative view” that the Grand Canyon was formed in seven days.

One need look no further than the USDA to see how compromised the research and enforcement environment has become. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was a former food industry lawyer and lobbyist and her staff includes representatives of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other industry groups. So it should be no surprise that shortly after a dairy cow from Canada tested positive for mad cow disease a senior scientist came forward alleging agency pressure to let Canadian beef into the U.S. before a study concluded it was safe. 18 Nor should it shock us that whistleblowers accused an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service supervisor of insisting a cow exhibiting symptoms of the disease be sent to a rendering plant before a technician could perform the tests mandated by agency guidelines. 19 But even the most cynical among us might be baffled by the almost cultish devotion to industry pandering exhibited when the USDA refused to give Creekstone Farms Premium Beef the kits it requested to voluntarily test its cattle so it could export to Japan because it might “create the impression that untested beef was not safe.” Creekstone may very well go bankrupt as a result.

Foreign scientists who would make the leap to the US are argued to be more disposed to Europe in this climate, which would do it some good term, but will harm the scientific community in the long. And it should anger Americans that smart, technical minded, rational people – the embodiment of the immigrant ethic that the country was built around – could be turned off by what America has to offer.
Why are scientists treated in such a way? How can this big tent party get away with this? One argument is simple, and again, pragmatic:

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.

To spell it out: this administration, following the tone of previous Republican ones (with notable exceptions, including GH Bush) makes political capital out of weakening science bodies, and protects its policy decisions from rational criticism by shifting the facts or undermining their perceived legitimacy. This is damning stuff, and they get away with it, because there is no voice for the scientists.

Except. There is a voice for science, if the blogosphere has any half the political clout it claims to. Blogs and their readers skew technophile, and their format rewards and reinforces a deference to rationality. Being right, having evidence, these are things that liberals, libertarians, conservatives, socialists, gun control advocates, gun freedom advocates, pro-war camps, anti-war camps all prize. Blogs from all across the political spectrum are the scientists best line of defence. We should consider, despite our politics (and looking at it from a British perspective, Kerry does not present to me as a liberal alternative), what it would mean to continue to have an administration bent on eroding the resources, influence and legitimacy of scientific investigation. What it means to continue to have an administration that is not interested in the views of the “reality-based community”. The difference in having an administration that would at least attempt to marshal the full scientific facts, and regard science and rational information as an intrinsically useful and valuable thing. That would not be condemned by the Union of Concerned Scientists for suppressing, distorting and undermining science.

Many have raised this President’s confidence in his instinct, and commitment to faith. I’m not at all interested if these lie behind his slashing the tyres of science, or it is due instead to those pragmatic considerations raised above, or some combination thereof. Maybe it speaks volumes about his decision making style, maybe not. When it comes to this issue, it really doesn’t matter all that much – it’s self-evidently a bad thing, regardless of motive. The enlightenment, that remarkable little project that all of us thinking people are committed to in one form or other, must be defended.

Commentators from across the board, from the left to the right do seem to care about such things, recognizing that imbalance and lack of respect towards scientific viewpoints are deeply troubling. But now is the time to convert those concerns into action. Kerry may not be a man of science, but he appears to respect it. An unprecedented array of Nobel scientists back him, stating that their decision is because “Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy-making that is so important to our collective welfare”, and he has placed himself against the stem-cell policy of his opponent
Of course, if you are already a “What good is science if we are all blown to bits by Al Quaida and John Kerry will ensure this will happen” kind of person, then this doesn’t make a jot of difference. [NB if you are, then continue through that link for an analysis of how a non-rational approach to the War on Terror may have already undermined it, then we can go back to the talking points] I know for many, this election is a single issue vote, and the idea that we can defend civilization and also champion those things that make it exceptional is no longer in fashion. But for those others – vote for science.

UPDATE: And there’s more. First, swing state Ohio is being hurt by the Bush approach to science. This isn’t just a floating, abstract issue – it affects people with real jobs.

Also, thanks to Meteor Blades at dKos I got hold of a vital link I was after. The Democrats care enough about this issue to be monitoring and documenting the treatment of science and scientists by the Bush Administration. There is too much on this site for me to begin to encompass, but when you try to tackle all these organisations:

    Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research
    Ambulatory Pediatric Association
    American Academy of Nursing
    American Academy of Pediatrics
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Association of Medical Colleges
    American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
    American Foundation for AIDS Research
    American Medical Association
    American Pediatric Society
    American Psychiatric Association
    American Psychological Association
    American Psychological Society
    American Public Health Association
    American Sociological Association
    Association of American Universities
    Association of Medical School Pediatric Department Chairs
    Association of Population Centers
    Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
    Association of Schools of Public Health
    Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine
    Center for the Advancement of Health
    Consortium of Social Science Associations
    Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences
    Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
    HIV Medicine Association
    Infectious Diseases Society of America
    Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research
    Population Association of America
    Society for Adolescent Medicine
    Society for Pediatric Research
    Society for Research in Child Development
    Society for Research on Adolescence
    Society for Women’s Health Research
    Society of Behavioral Medicine
    University of California

then it’s safe to say you’re not on the side of science.

UPDATE 2: Well, it’s all said and done and the other guys won. Which is precisely why it is so important that these anti-scientific measures, together with this broad antipathy toward the scientific community, is recognised, vilified, and trumpeted to high heaven by anyone who is sympathetic to science per se, and the entire enlightenment project. If this stands it harms all of us.

One Reply to “Election 04 – A scientific case for voting Kerry”

  1. There’s an organisation called Scientists and Engineers for Change who say similar things to this post (with which I strongly agree, incidentally), and they’ve been touring the country making presentations about why the Bush administration is bad for science. It’s pretty powerful stuff, but it’s a difficult message to get out to people who don’t already agree with it. In that vein, I found their page on how Ohio is directly hurt by anti-science policies quite impressive.

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