Friday, February 15, 2008

Scientific Integrity

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a statement at a press conference during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, calling on the next US president and Congress to end political interference in science and establish conditions that would allow federal science to flourish.

Environmental Protection Agency scientist Bill Hirzy said:

"Scientific integrity is the bedrock on which the federal science establishment must rest. Unfortunately, too many EPA scientists have had to fight interference from political or private sector interests."

The UCS further released a report "Federal Science and the Public Good" that recommends steps the next president can take to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. They report how the current administration has misused science, and lists several examples, ranging from how the Consumer Product Safety Commission manipulated testing procedures, over the Food and Drug Administration citing fabricated industry studies, to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency used faulty testing procedures. They propose a set of steps how to change procedures an policies, and conclude with

"This interference in science threatens our nation’s ability to respond to complex challenges to public health, the environment, and national security. It risks demoralizing the federal scientific workforce and raises the possibility of lasting harm to the federal scientific enterprise. Most important, it betrays public trust in our government and undermines the democratic principles upon which this nation was founded."

Overall, it looks like a very well done statement, pinning down a lot of accumulated concerns and offering potential solutions.


  1. In the stalinist Soviet Union there was Trofim Lysenko (I'm sure there were many others, but his name is the one that stands out) politically interfering in science (genetics specifically) to make it more in line with 'dialectical materialism'.

    In the Bush II years we had flagrant political interference with science to make it more in line with right-wing ideology.

  2. The problems are the American public is so badly educated its doesn't understand what has gone on.

    Also, whats been done once will most like be done again.So don't be surprised if the next president interferes also.

  3. People should read more carefully into exactly what this organization actually says, rather than what they claim to represent.

    They have a number of ridiculous statements about nuclear power and genetic food, and it reads more like something from greenpeace, than what you would find in an academic setting.

    They seem more akin to a political hack group pretending to represent scientists, rather than the actual thing.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I won't be surprised. I don't think this is going to change much. Even if they should manage to pass some bills.

    Hi Anonymous,

    I admit on not having read the whole thing. I read the improvements they propose, and they sound reasonable to me, no matter what their exact opinion on frog extinction is or something.



  5. I can understand Bee being diplomatic about who is most responsible for interfering in science, but as changcho said, it is mostly from the Right. A good book on all that is The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney.

  6. Certainly the right in the US has much to blame for. Stem cell research, creationism pseudoscience, some of the anti global warming bs (though the other extreme is also ridiculous), and lapse of judgements with respect to budget priorities like manned missions to Mars, etc

    The left historically has also had lapses, for instance in the anti nuclear hysteria, anti genetic modification of foods and fertilizers and its involvment in the so called "science wars" to name a few.

    I'd say the rights abuses in the US are more recent, but its far from a clean slate for either side. I just hate when some organization picks a political side, rather than shallacking both parties as they should.

  7. Hi All,

    I’ll have to side with Anonymous here for science is always being pulled one way and another and often times both at once. This of course is assuming that in itself is apolitical. However can it be especially since this is where the funding comes from? No, I’m afraid it’s all given away in the first line of their plea which follows:

    “Scientific knowledge and its successful applications have played a large role in making the United States of America a powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy.”

    So is this the goal that science is dedicated to? Its job is to serve the expansion and continuance of the power, status, economy and advantage of a single nation? Technology perhaps, but science?



  8. Hi All,

    Neil: I can understand Bee being diplomatic about who is most responsible for interfering in science, but as changcho said, it is mostly from the Right.

    It's not diplomacy it's just not my opinion. To begin with I can't make sense out of referring to a party in the political spectrum as 'left' and 'right' in any other means than the actual seating order in the parliament. Yet that is what many people do, and different people seem to mean very different things with that.

    If you try to use the left-right spectrum as a categorization, then traditionally I'd have placed conservatism and nationalism to the right, socialism and communism to the left. If you use that as a categorization that leaves you with a problem for national socialism, which is now left and right and illuminates the problem of a one-dimensional scale - it's seated to the right, but that doesn't reflect the actual political content now. Likewise, where do you place environmentally oriented parties? Maybe we should assign seats in at least three dimensions.

    In the US there doesn't seem to be much political spectrum to begin with, on my scale everything is middle-right (and vertically jumping up and down). What you above seem to be referring to is 'right' actually the amount of 'neo-liberalism'? (That again does confuse me since at least in Germany the liberals are seated in the middle if I recall that correctly, not to the right). Also, I insist on the 'neo' since I am sympathetic to the actual origin of liberalism. The 'neo' version however seems to insist 'freedom' of the individual is connected to 'deregulation' of the market, which imho is complete bullshit. Most of the laws we have are there to protect people's freedom, not to hinder it.

    Either way, to come back to the actual question at hand, I don't see any reason why one side of the political spectrum should or would more or less interfere with science. I think this doing is mostly a result of mislead good intentions. I generally grant to everybody they mean well with what they are doing and in many cases the reasoning will be something along the lines of 'we have to think about the economical consequences'. This you could now put to the left or to the right, however you want to interpret it. You might argue it's protecting interest groups, but you might also argue it's on a secondary step protecting the larger community by securing jobs etc. I have heard this way of arguing re-re-repeatedly from all sides of the political spectrum (and currently not in the mood to elaborate why it's mostly flawed reasoning).

    The problem here, as in almost all other cases, is that people misjudge the consequences of their doing. There is part of the consequences they understand and can relate to, the other part is abstract and far away. The human mind being what it is, it is easier to imagine somebody losing his job and the family eating Spaghetti every day than what the consequences are of overloading rivers with nitrogen.



  9. "The left historically has also had lapses"...

    This is certainly true as well; however, let us put things in perspective. It is clear that the political interference of the current administration on science is orders of magnitudes worse than anything in recent US history. They've elevated this to an art (and I don't mean that kindly).

  10. Hi Changcho:

    I don't know enough about US history (neither the recent nor the not-so-recent one) to judge whether this is true or not. But even considered this was true, this would not mean it is a consequence of a politic direction. Instead, it could very well be an underlying time-dependent sociological trend that reflects in the government. I generally have a problem with the differentiation of "they" against "us" or, even worse, "the system". Politicians are after all human beings like everybody else, and they are in many cases as much subject to fashions, fads and biases like the citizens of the nation they are supposed to 'govern'. That's why I keep saying we need some sort of 'scientific method' in applied social and political sciences as an established part of the institutional procedures (that goes much beyond what the above mentioned report of the UCS suggests). Best,


  11. There was just a report on NBC news tonight, about Bush in Africa - and how he has funded AIDS drugs, but offers abstinence-based education. An aid worker said, "He doesn't like us giving out condoms." That is literally (if unintentionally) murderous.


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