Politicization of science

The politicization of science is the manipulation of science for political gain. It occurs when government, business, or interest groups use legal or economic pressure to influence the findings of scientific research or the way the it is disseminated, reported or interpreted. Historically, these groups have conducted various campaigns to promote their interests in defiance of scientific consensus, and in an effort to manipulate public policy.


Wheat production and the Soviet Union

Trofim Lysenko declared that the genetics of Mendel’s peas and Morgan’s fruit flies was incorrect and simply a capitalist plot to exploit the peasants and working class. Lysenko believed that only environmental factors determined the performance of plants and that acquired characteristics could be inherited. With his theory that denied the existence of gene-based inheritance, Lysenko promised almost instant improvements in agricultural production. Lysenko’s proletariat origins helped him to avoid the hatred of the Soviet authorities for the intelligentsia. He first became famous in 1928 by claiming that a series of simple steps, within reach of any farmer, produced markedly improved yields of wheat. All that was necessary was "vernalization" - soaking winter wheat seed in the fall, burying it in sacks under the snow, and planting it in the spring like ordinary spring wheat. This was all a fraud, supported by falsified data and government corruption.

Tobacco and cancer

By the mid-1950s there was a scientific consensus that smoking promotes lung cancer, but the tobacco industry fought the findings, both in the public eye and within the scientific community. Tobacco companies funded think tanks and lobbying groups, started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals, and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos and even pet birds. Denying the case against tobacco was "closed," they called for more research as a tactic to delay regulation.

Modern accusations of politicization

George W. Bush administration

In 2004, The Denver Post reported that that George W. Bush administration "has installed more than 100 top officials who were once lobbyists, attorneys or spokespeople for the industries they oversee." At least 20 of these former industry advocates helped their agencies write, shape or push for policy shifts that benefit their former industries. "They knew which changes to make because they had pushed for them as industry advocates."

Also in 2004, the scientific advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science which charged the following:

A growing number of scientists, policy makers, and technical specialists both inside and outside the government allege that the current Bush administration has suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy. In addition, these experts contend that irregularities in the appointment of scientific advisors and advisory panels are threatening to upset the legally mandated balance of these bodies."
A petition, signed by more than 9,000 scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates and 63 National Medal of Science recipients, followed the report. The petition stated:
"When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government’s own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice. Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front. Furthermore, in advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, the administration has sometimes misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies."

The same year, Francesca Grifo, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, stated "We have reports that stay in draft form and don't get out to the public. We have reports that are changed. We have reports that are ignored and overwritten."

In response to criticisms, President Bush in 2006 unveiled a campaign in his State of the Union Address to promote scientific research and education to ensure American competitiveness in the world, vowing to "double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years."

Surgeon General

Dr. Richard Carmona, the first surgeon general appointed by President George W. Bush, publicly accused the administration in July 2007 of political interference and muzzling him on key issues like embryonic stem cell research.

"Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried," Carmona testified.

Although he did not make personal accusations, the Washington Post reported on July 29 that the official who blocked at least one of Carmona's reports was William R. Steiger.

Food and Drug Administration

In July 2006 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released survey results that demonstrate pervasive political influence of science at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to the survey, nearly one fifth (18.4 percent) said that they "have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document." This is the third survey Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted to examine inappropriate interference with science at federal agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services also conducted a survey addressing the same topic which generated similar findings. According to USA Today, a survey of Food and Drug Administration scientists by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many scientists have been pressured to approve or reject new drugs despite their scientific findings concerns. In July 2006, the Union of Concerned Scientists released survey results that they said "demonstrate pervasive political influence of science" at the Food and Drug Administration

United States Department of the Interior

On May 1, 2007, deputy assistant secretary at the United States Department of the Interior Julie MacDonald resigned after the Interior Department Inspector General, Honorable Earl E. Devaney, reported that MacDonald broke federal rules by giving non-public, internal government documents to oil industry and property rights groups, and manipulated scientific findings to favor Bush policy goals and assist land developers. On 29 November, 2007, another report by the Devaney found that MacDonald could have also benefitted financially from a decision she was involved with to remove the Sacramento splittail fish from the federal endangered species list.

MacDonald's conduct violated the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) under 5 C.F.R. 9 2635.703 Use of Nonpublic Information and 5 C.F.R. 5 2635.101 Basic Obligation of Public Service, Appearance of Preferential Treatment. MacDonald resigned a week before a House congressional oversight committee was to hold a hearing on accusations that she had "violated the Endangered Species Act, censored science and mistreated staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

Intelligent design

A current example is the intelligent design movement originating with the Discovery Institute, which seeks to "defeat [the] materialist world view" represented by the theory of evolution in favor of "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions". In contrast to scientific consensus the Discovery Institute portrays evolution as a "theory in crisis" with scientists criticizing evolution and that "fairness" and "equal time" requires educating students about the controversy. The scientific community and science education organizations have replied that any controversial aspects of evolution are a matter of religion and politics, not science. The 2005 ruling in the Dover trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, where the claims of intelligent design proponents were considered by a United States federal court concluded that intelligent design is not science, that it "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents", and concluded that the school district's promotion of it therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A 2006 article in scientific journal Science, said the reason that among the thirty-four developed countries surveyed, the U.S. ranks second from last in the number of adults who accept the theory of evolution: "The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States.

Global warming

Both sides of the controversy over global warming have accused each other of politicizing the science behind climate change.

In 1991, a US corporate coalition including the National Coal Association, the Western Fuels Association and Edison Electrical Institute created a public relations organization called the "Information Council on the Environment" (ICE). ICE launched a $500,000 advertising campaign to, in ICE's own words, "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)." Critics of industry groups have charged that the claims about a global warming controversy are part of a deliberate effort to reduce the impact any international treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol, might have on their business interests.

In June 2005, John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian, asserted the existence of US State Department papers showing that the Bush administration thanked Exxon executives for the company's "active involvement" in helping to determine climate change policy, including the US stance on Kyoto. Input from the industry advocacy group Global Climate Coalition was also a factor. In 2006, The Guardian reported that according data found in official Exxon documents, 124 organizations have taken money from ExxonMobil or worked closely with who that have, and that "These organizations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled 'junk science'. The findings they welcome are labelled 'sound science'. The "selective use of data", cherry picking, is identified as a notable form of scientific abuse by the Pacific Institute, an organization created to provide independent research and policy analysis on issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security.

In December 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported that at least since 2003, and especially after hurricane Katrina, the George W. Bush administration has broadly attempted to control which climate scientists could speak with reporters, as well as edited scientists' congressional testimony on climate science and key legal opinions Those who have studied organizations set up to delay action and manufacture uncertainty about well established scientific consensus have divided their tactics into three basic categories: first deny there is a problem, second, make the case that it's not a problem and may actually be beneficial, and failing that to admit it's a problem but insist there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Climate change has also long been a political issue for the Democratic party politician Al Gore. Some political opponents have accused him of using the issue as a means to advance his political ambitions. He has not run for any political office since 2000. In 2007 Gore won an Academy Award (for An Inconvenient Truth) and a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

Waxman report

In August 2003, United States, Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman and the staff of the Government Reform Committee released a report concluding that the administration of George W. Bush had politicized science and sex education. The report accuses the administration of modifying performance measures for abstinence-based programs to make them look more effective. The report also found that the Bush administration had appointed Dr. Joseph McIlhaney, a prominent advocate of abstinence-only program, to the Advisory Committee to the director of the Center for Disease Control. According to the report, information about comprehensive sex education was removed from the CDC's website. Other issues considered for removal included agricultural pollution, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and breast cancer; the report found that a National Cancer Institute website has been changed to reflect the administration view that there may be a risk of breast cancer associated with abortions. The website was updated after protests and now holds that no such risk has been found in recent, well-designed studies.

US House of Representatives Science Oversight and Investigation subcommittee

In January 2007, the House Committee on Science and Technology announced the formation of a new subcommittee, the Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, which handles investigative and oversight activities on matters covering the committee's entire jurisdiction. The subcommittee has authority to look into a whole range of important issues, particularly those concerning manipulation of scientific data at Federal agencies. In an interview, subcommitte chairman Rep. Brad Miller pledged to "look into...scientific integrity issues under the Bush Administration. There have been lots of reports in the press of manipulating science to support policy, rigging advisory panels, and suppressing research by federal employees or with federal dollars. I've written about that here before, and you interviewed me a year ago about the manipulation of science. In addition to the published reports, the committee staff has been collecting accounts, some confidential, of interference by political appointees. I hope that more folks will come forward now that Democrats are in the majority and we show we're really going to pursue the issue.

See also

External links


Additional reading

* The Republican War on Science Chris Mooney (2005).
* Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: Investigation of the Bush administration's abuse of science Union of Concerned Scientists (2004).
* Political Science The New York Times (2005).
* Politicized Science: Science as Public Relations Skeptic Magazine (2004).
* Politicized Science Dissent Magazine (2004)

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