Battle of the Bunsen Burners

The science wars are here to stay.


Has science become politicized? A better question might be: When has it ever not been? The Roman Catholic Church's prosecution of Galileo is a famous example. Another is the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to ban the pesticide DDT even though an EPA administrative law examiner, after a seven month hearing of scientific evidence, determined that it shouldn't be prohibited.

The problem is that scientific results always have an impact on somebody, usually because they can be turned into newfangled innovations that threaten old technologies. Consequently, lobbyists and activists swarm Capitol Hill yelling about the advantages of their new product and the horrors perpetrated by the old. On a mundane level consider the epic battles between cable and broadcast television, and between recording companies and file swapping utilities like Napster. Do violent video games boost the teen murder rate? Do abortions increase a woman's chance of getting breast cancer? If man-made global warming turns out to be a big problem, emitters of carbon dioxide fear that they will lose out to alternative power sources like wind and solar.

On the medical front, pro-lifers sing the praises of adult stem cells while pouring scorn on embryonic stem cells. They do so because they think that producing embryonic stem cells is the moral equivalent of dismembering infants for parts. Pro-lifers know that their ethical arguments will only sway so many people, so they resort to scientific arguments, claiming that adult stem cells are just as efficacious as embryonic cells in order to convince the rest of us to abandon research they believe is a moral horror. In fact, if they turn out to be right, that would have an impact on federal funding and the direction that thousands of stem cell researchers would drive their work.

And then there is the vexed problem of funding sources. Surveys of studies show that scientific reports sponsored by drug companies generally find the supporting company's drugs to be safe and efficacious, whereas independent studies often do not. Interestingly, studies supported by the $132 billion in federal research and development expenditures rarely occasion such scrutiny. Perhaps that's because they are generally above reproach. But it is also true that most academic research is funded by government agencies and it will not help a scientist's career to bite the federal hand that feeds him and his postdocs. I also suspect that most agency funded research generally finds that what the agency guesses is a problem turns out to be a problem.

In a liberal secular society in which traditional sources of authority—the Church and the State—have eroded, science stands the ultimate arbiter of truth. So, both the right and the left loudly seek to claim that scientific findings justify their political goals.

Not surprisingly, when a scientific finding doesn't support their policies or programs, both sides suspect that it has been "politicized." In this case, "politicized" means disagrees with what we good people want. Naturally to prevent politicization, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to legislate scientific objectivity. On the right, the Republicans are proponents of the Federal Data Quality Act of 1999 (FDQA). The FDQA directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to "issue guidelines…that provide policy and procedural guidance to federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by federal agencies." Who could be against any of those good and true things?

However, the Bush Administration's OMB issued controversial regulations providing government-wide guidance aimed at enhancing the practice of peer review of government science documents. Democrats and various left-leaning activist groups object that the new OMB peer review process largely excludes scientists who are agency employees from serving as reviewers. Naturally, the Democrats and activists believe that scientists working for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration are objective experts who, not incidentally, will support their programs. Never mind the distorting public choice incentives that pressure even honest agency personnel to find evidence for the existence of the problems that their agency was created to address. So last year Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) submitted the Restore Scientific Integrity to Federal Research and Policymaking Act (RSIFRPA), portions of which aimed to quash the new OMB peer review regulations.

On the other hand, the Democrats can point to evidence that the Bush Administration has censored scientific research and disseminated false information. Consequently, Democrats and their ideological confreres hope that they have put a stop to the Bush Administration's subversion of science with the adoption of some portions of the RSIFRPA, which were incorporated into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget bill last month. The act prohibits federal employees from tampering with or censoring federally funded scientific research or analysis or directing the dissemination of false or misleading information. Again, what person of good will could be against these salutary goals?

What these efforts to legislate scientific objectivity really point up is that science, as the chief arbiter of truth in our society, will remain unavoidably enmeshed in politics. The government official who ordered the ban on DDT despite the scientific evidence for its safety, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, brought admirable clarity to the issue. In 1979, Ruckelshaus wrote to Allan Grant, president of American Farm Bureau Federation president, stating, "Decisions by the government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a small 'p.' The ultimate judgment remains political." What was true for the EPA in 1972, is even more true for federal agencies today. The science wars are here to stay.