Political Science?

Article excerpt

As a political scientist, I share in the identity crisis of all social scientists: can my discipline be considered a science? Can the behavior of often-irrational human beings be explained through theories, models, and other tools of scientific methodology? Social theorist Richard Bernstein has characterized the last hundred years of social science as a series of "declarations that it has just become, or is just about to become, a scientific enterprise."

The political science debate in Washington, however, is not about political science's identity crisis but about the political compromising of scientific research. Several groups have criticized the Bush administration for allowing its political agenda to undermine the integrity of basic scientific research. The administration dismissed its critics as politically motivated themselves.

In 2003, Democrats on the House Government Affairs Committee issued a report titled Politics and Science in the Bush Administration, charging that "the Administration's political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the President, inaccurate responses to Congress, . . . and the gagging of scientists." Given the partisan origins of the report, it was rather easily dismissed as itself political.

This past February, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued Scientific Integrity in Policymaking. This report, prepared by distinguished scientists, found "suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees[,] . . . a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government's scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of advice that might run counter to the administration's political agenda[,] . . . . [and] evidence that the administration often imposes restrictions on what government scientists can say or write about 'sensitive' topics." The report concludes that "the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented." Its signatories call on the "President, Congress, scientists, and the public to take immediate steps to restore the integrity of science in the federal policymaking process."

As a group of renowned scientists who cannot be dismissed simply as partisan opponents, the UCS represents a more direct challenge to the administration than the Democrats on the House Government Affairs Committee. Accordingly, John Marburger III, director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy, refuted the report with a point-by-point review of its findings. (See story on page 11-12.)

If the debate over the politicization of science is itself political, what is to be done? …