Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Keynote speech by Bush's Science Advisor

I just got back from the Yeast Genetics and Molecular Biology Meeting. To someone who's not a biologist, this might seem like an obscure topic - akin to a meeting on tree frogs or the infamous spotted owl. Such an impression would be wrong though - this is a major conference focused on fundamental research in molecular cell biology. Many of the major players in the field of genomics attend this meeting, and most of the research presented is relevant to human biology.

One of the keynote speakers this year was Dr. John Marburger, science advisor to President Bush and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. (There is some interesting stuff on this website, although it's juxtaposed with White House propaganda.) I was really wondering what Marburger was going to say - the biologists attending this meeting are generally not big fans of the current President, especially the Europeans.

Marburger actually gave a nice talk - he spoke of his serious committment to basic science (as opposed to applied science). He emphasized that US policy needs to be sure not to squeeze out the basic research that is ultimately necessary for the applied science we all appreciate, like disease cures, fuel cells, better power plants, and better computers. Marburger also said that basic research is not only justified by what goes into the applied science pipeline, but that it is also (to quote Oppenheimer) ennoblng to scientists and society.

All the excitement was in the Q&A session. Most of the questions were reasonable but some were excessively inflammatory - people could have asked the same question in a more serious and hard-hitting way. No surprise though, given the nature of the audience. But Marburger basically rose to the bait. Not only did he defend Bush (which is after all part of his job), but he also piled on the superlatives. He said Bush has been more supportive of science than any other president, he said that Bush never uses hot-button issues to create divisiveness (hello? South Carolina primary in 2000? Support for amendments to ban gay marriage every election year?), that Bush is one of the most principled men he knows, and that Bush is really, really personally interested in basic science. When someone raised the issue of Bush's offhand endorsement of intelligent design, Marbugrer dismissed as a flustered response to a "gotcha question." Gotcha question? A reporter calls out a question about an issue that has been in the headlines for months, a question which Bush could have easily ignored (and then it wouldn't have made the news), and Marburger calls it entrapment? And then Marburger claimed that Bush didn't actually mean what he said.

Bullshit. Marburger may be a distinguished scientists and administrator, but in this setting he came off as a Bush stooge. All he had to do was defend the worst accusations against Bush, but he went beyond it and tried to portray Bush as somebody the man most definitely isn't. He may not be the worst thing that ever happened to science, but he's certainly not the most supportive president in history. Marburger lost whatever crediblity he may have had with this group.

One more point needs to be emphasized. The Bush administration is not one man. Just because Bush hasn't had a direct hand in some science controversy, his administration is certainly populated with people who are ideologically motivated to smear and suppress serious science. Marburger focused a lot on Bush himself (with a typical Bush-like emphasis on a person's charcter rather than actions) and completely ignored the criticisms leveled against the administration as a whole.

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