Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Republican War on Science? Nature's editors cop out

The Oct 19th issue of Nature contains a feature section on science and the upcoming US Conrgessional elections. In one of the editorials, (subscription required) Nature's editors criticize the phrase "Republican war on science":

"Slogans such as the 'Republican war on science', meant to sum up a host of perceived abuses, do not do justice to the complex relationship between science and each of the two major political parties."

In an effort to not be percieved as partisan, some people, Nature's editors included, can't bring themselves to truly call things as they are. In recent years, there are very good reasons to single out the Republican party for its serious corrosion of the US government's relationship with science. The phrase "Republican War on Science" (the title of Chris Mooney's recent book) is a correct, legitimate characterization for the following reasons:

1. It's true that no political party or presidential administration is monolithic. There are many Republicans who are not part of an assault on the integrity of science, and not every single decision made by the Bush adminstration has been bad for science. However, the Republican leadership in Congress and the Executive Branch, as well as the active members of the Republican base, have seriously abused science and scientists to push their ideological agenda. Whether it's pushing intelligent design (from school boards to the 'Santorum Amendment' of the No Child Left Behind Act), having an ex-physician novelist testify to Congress on climate change, diagnosing Terri Schiavo by video from Congress, or the more low-profile but perasive agency decisions that weaken protection of the environment and endangered species, promote ineffective and sometimes inaccurate 'abstinence only' sex ed programs, and restrict drugs because of anti-abortion ideology and not safety and efficacy concerns, the Republican leadership and base have attacked mainstream, scientific consensus when it stands in the way of their ideological postion. In recent years, Republicans have been much, much more guilty of this than Democrats.

2. Yes, the Republican-led Congress voted to double the NIH budget in the late 90's, and recently voted to double the NSF budget. But this is an easy vote - it doesn't offend anyone's ideology, it's a fairly small fraction of overall governtment spending on R&D, and there is large bipartisan support for these increases. These votes don't negate the Congressional meddling in research whenever that research is politically controversial for conservatives.

3. This 'war on science' fits the description given by Rep. Rush Holt of the current political climate (in Nature, subscription required):

"In official Washington, scientific subjects have become really politicized. There should be debate about the policy that is derived from science. But, historically, if science puts limits on the choices that are possible, the politicians would accept that. Now, by treating science as just another topic to be dealt with ideologically, or to be part of political trades, they will even ignore the laws of science."

Nature's editors should have shown some spine on this issue. At the very least, they shouldn't have taken a blatant swipe at Chris Mooney, who has been a serious champion of scientific integrity in both journalism and government.

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