20 October 2011

See No Evil

Why have a number of areas of US science become so politicized?

One answer to this question is that those concerned about science in politics have ceded discussion of issues of science policy to the most overtly partisan, many of whom see science as nothing more than a convenient tool to extract political advantage. This dynamic manifests itself in the overwhelming selectivity of attention among those who purport to be concerned about science in politics.

Consider a few examples:

Remember when James Hansen was told that his access to the media would be limited and controlled by minders at NASA?  Of course you do. It has been a talking point for years.

But what about when the Obama Administration recently muzzled scientists and other officials at the Department of Health and Human Services? If you frequent the science corner of the blogosphere you might have missed it (though if you visit the conservative-o-sphere you may have seen it).  Here is what one long-time journalist said about the policy:
The new formal HHS Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media represent, to this 36-year veteran of reporting FDA news, a Soviet-style power-grab. By requiring all HHS employees to arrange their information-sharing with news media through their agency press office, HHS has formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations.
AAAS? Chris Mooney? Crickets.

Remember when the Bush Administration was accused of couching its ideological preferences in the name of science in order to prohibit research on stem cells?  Well, of course you do.

But what about the Obama Administration's hiding its decision to close Yucca Mountain behind science?  As President Obama's spokesman explained:
"I think what has taken Yucca Mountain off the table in terms of a long-term solution for a repository for our nuclear waste is the science. The science ought to make these decisions."
Of course, the science. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists hints there may be more than just science at play:
In 2002 the Energy Secretary issued a formal finding of Yucca Mountain's scientific suitability, but the White House press corps didn't question Gibbs on what  "science" he was talking about. Instead, most coverage focused on Obama's ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, an Obama supporter who was heading into a tough re-election campaign in a state where there is widespread public opposition to Yucca Mountain. With the stroke of a pen, the president leveled a mountain of research that had taken 20 years and $10 billion to build.
Defenders of scientific integrity? Silence.

Remember when Congressman Henry Waxman compiled a laundry list of examples where Bush Administration had violated standards of scientific integrity?  Yes, yes, I know you do.

Well just today Senator David Vitter and two colleagues compiled their own list of alleged transgressions of scientific integrity by the Obama Administration and fired it off to John Holdren, the president's science advisor, demanding a response to a long list of questions.

I received a copy of the letter by email. The only media coverage that I am aware of is Fox News, who have their own agenda.

Science bloggers? AGU?  Nothing.

Among those in the scientific community and those who like to pal around with the scientific community, the selective ignorance of issues associated with scientific integrity fits politics as usual, but ultimately will only reinforce the pathological politicization of science. Of course, many scientists and scientific organizations are willing to allow science to be used in this instrumental fashion because their own political preferences align with those who are exploiting them.

As I have long argued the issues raised by the Bush Administration's and now the Obama Administration's ham-handed efforts at the intersection of science and politics do not have a partisan solution. Rather, they involve mundane, messy and complicated issues of bureaucracy, governance, and accountability -- policy rather than politics.

Those who seek to extract partisan advantage from debates involving science are not really friends of science. The politicization of science will not improve until the scientific community itself takes charge of this issue and returns it to the realm of science policy rather than partisan politics.