Monday, December 22, 2008


By William Fisher

Key appointments announced by president-elect Barack Obama suggest that science will soon make a major comeback in the U.S. Government.

The outgoing administration of President George W. Bush has been harshly criticized by many members of the American scientific community for allowing ideology to distort or eliminate findings on such critical subjects as reproductive health, stem cell research, climate change, and a host of other environmental issues.

But Obama’s choices indicate that a hundred-and-eighty degree turn is in the offing. The change can already be seen in the president-elect’s first choices for scientific posts.

These include Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Nobel laureate in physics, nominated to be energy secretary; John P. Holdren, a physicist and Harvard professor of environmental policy, who will serve as the president’s science adviser and as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology; Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from Oregon State University, who will lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which carries out much of the government’s research on global warming; Eric S. Lander, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), who helped lead the effort to sequence the human genome; Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Lisa Jackson, tapped to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who is a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and who played a major role in implementing the state's program to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce emissions to 80 percent below 2006 levels by 2050; and Nancy Sutley, formerly deputy secretary for policy and intergovernmental relations with the California Environmental Protection Agency, to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Dr. Varmus will also co-chair the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology along with Dr. Holdren.

Numerous other appointments are yet to come for science-based agencies including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Public Health Service.

In a radio address in which he announced the appointments last week, Obama said, “It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”

“Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create 21st century jobs — today more than ever, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation,” Obama said.

Most of the American scientific community has been at odds with the Bush Administration since it won the White House in 2000. In its 2008 statement, one of the most prominent of scientific organizations, the Union of Concerned Scientists, demanded that the U.S. government return to “high standards of scientific integrity in forming and implementing its policies. Breaches of this principle have damaged the public good and the international leadership of the United States.”

“To meet its obligation to serve the public interest, the government must have reliable scientific work and advice at its disposal, and provide the public with reliable scientific information. This requires the government to provide federal scientists with the resources and the professional environment necessary to carry out their missions effectively and honestly,” the organization said.

Among the most controversial scientific issues to confront the Bush Administration is its promotion of abstinence-until-marriage education programs. These programs receive about $158 million annually from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

But an investigation covering ten states by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that these programs are not reviewed for scientific accuracy before they are granted funding. The report found that only half reviewed the programs for scientifically accurate data on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and other information. It concluded that most state and federal efforts to assess the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage education programs "do not meet the minimum scientific standards" that experts say are necessary to be scientifically valid.

Commenting on that report, Dr. Michael Stebbins, Director of Biology for the Federation of American Scientists, told us, “Time after time, ideology has trumped science in a very ugly way during the Bush Administration. It is no surprise that the GAO finds major shortcomings in the abstinence only approach of the government. There are very real questions about whether this approach works. The evidence so far is that it does not, and this has an effect on, for example, whether we are fighting the spread of HIV-AIDS in the most effective way. But the White House – and members of Congress under its control – have move in lockstep to block science-based lawmaking.”

The GAO report is part of a multi-year series of findings that the Bush administration has often appointed poorly qualified people to head science-based agencies and has systematically manipulated science to comply with ideology.

For example, in banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, President Bush stated that “more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was 24 to 25. Still later, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers.

Global Warming reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change have also been suppressed. The White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment that the then-administrator Christie Todd Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one she felt was scientifically inaccurate.

Defense Department officials presented misleading information on whether a functional Missile Defense System could be quickly deployed. A senior Pentagon official told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90% effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. But a year earlier, in April 2003, the GAO found the President’s plan unworkable and even dangerous. The Pentagon’s claim of 90% effectiveness “is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon’s own classified estimates,” the GAO reported.

Comments on Wetlands Policy from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes have been withheld. Scientists at the agency, which is part of the Interior Department, prepared an analysis showing that a new proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers would “encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions.” But the then-Interior Secretary failed to submit the scientists’ comments to the Corps. The Corps subsequently issued rules that weakened key wetland protections.

After social conservatives campaigned to require women to be “counseled” about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions, the National Cancer Institute revised its web site to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question, despite the fact that the scientific consensus is that no such link exists.

A report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman of California charged that the Bush Administration manipulated many of the government’s numerous Scientific Advisory Committees to advance its political and ideological agenda. Examples include appointing unqualified persons with industry ties, opposing qualified experts, and stacking advisory committees.

The Bush Administration contends that these examples are isolated coincidences.