The Defiance of Science ; More Than 4,000 Scientists Have Signed a Petition Accusing George Bush of Twisting Their Work to Further His Political Agenda. Andrew Buncombe Investigates the War between the White House and the Men in White Coats

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For Michael Greene, there was little hesitation. The Harvard professor has spent much of his life working in the field of reproductive health, and when - in his capacity as a member of a federal advisory committee - he was asked his opinion about a new emergency contraception, he had few doubts about recommending that it be licensed.

And neither did the overwhelming majority of his colleagues on the committee, formed by the US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Indeed, the distinguished panel voted 23-4 in favour of selling the "morning after" pill Plan B without prescription. The FDA almost always follows its experts' recommendations.

But not this time. Despite the wealth of expert opinion, the FDA rejected the committee's view, claiming that there was insufficient data. Committee members were incensed. E-mails flew back and forth, talking of resignation and political interference in the scientific process. "People are very angry," says Greene. "The issue here is much larger than just Plan B. The decision is blatantly contrary to the science and the facts, and so blatantly politicised."

But critics say that this is just one modest example among dozens of the way in which the administration of President George Bush is manipulating and twisting science for its own extreme ideological ends. On issues from global warming to lead in drinking water and the alleged link between breast cancer and abortions, this administration, like no other before it, is turning science into a political battleground.

Suddenly, science is responding in what is almost certainly an unprecedented revolt against the government. Earlier this year, the non-profit group, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), put together a petition that has so far been signed by more than 4,000 scientists, among them 20 Nobel prize-winners, demanding that the Bush administration change its behaviour. It also published a 38- page report detailing the government's scientific distortions.

"Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world's most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy," the report says. "Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle."

The result of this politicisation, say disgruntled scientists, has resulted not only in flawed policies but the very undermining of American scientific ideals - and even perhaps the nation's founding principles. What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper's Magazine, which he edits, has been "the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare... [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn't prove what it's been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party".

There are few issues where the evidence of scientific distortion is more apparent than that of reproductive health. On 22 January 2001, four days after his inauguration, Bush reinstated the so- called Mexico City policy, which denies federal funds to family- planning groups that provide abortion counselling or services overseas.

Since then, led by its born-again evangelical leader, the government has waged war on anything that might be considered a "liberal approach" towards reproductive health. Condoms have been condemned as ineffective, and the administration has adopted "abstinence only" as the official approach towards sex education. …