When Science Crosses Politics, II: Getting Down to Earth in the Great Wastewater Disputes
Berg, Rebecca, Journal of Environmental Health
Now, in respect to the human race at large, you do not perceive a constant progress of improvement that looks as if approaching nearer and nearer to perfection. On the contrary, we see the human race as a whole subject to slight swings; and it never yet made some steps forward but what it did, soon after, slide back again into its previous station with double the celerity. --Moses Mendelssohn
Scientists and the press have been sounding alarms recently about the increasing politicization of science, particularly the science of public health and the environment. At the federal level, there have been reports of research appointments based on political loyalty rather than scientific credentials, as well as suppression of research results and reassurances about public health threats made without scientific justification (Grimaldi & Edsall, 2004; Kupferman, 2003; Lyman, 2003; McNeil, 2004; Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General, 2003; Zweifel, 2004). In the field of environmental health the trend can be felt even on the local level, where it is now a common practice for some top management positions in health departments to be filled by political appointment rather than through a traditional search for the candidate with the best professional credentials. In light of these developments, it may be tempting to feel some nostalgia for the good old days when scientists were scientists and politicians knew their place.
Was there really ever such a time?
Some of the good old days were pretty bad, according to one former environmental health manager, who asked to remain anonymous. He began his career in food safety in the 1960s in a certain medium-sized city. At that time, he told the Journal of Environmental Health (JEH), many of the other health inspectors had their jobs because of political connections: "The commissioner would tell my boss that he had a cousin twice removed who just got out of the army and to get him a job as a health inspector." The political system in those days was "very good," he added dryly:
Me being a green rookie, I'd go out to some restaurant that had been there since before I was born and ... find the place filthy, and before I could get back to the office with my report, my boss knew about it.... My first year ... I probably was offered, oh, maybe 150 dinners and 50 bottles of booze during my inspections to look the other way.
But over the next decade, he said, restaurateurs came to understand that they "weren't able to do that anymore." He attributed this change to passage of a state law that required sanitarians to be registered, and to the credentialing and professionalization of health inspectors.
The point of this example is not that one should be complacent about the present state of relations between science and politics simply because "these things have always happened." Nor is it a call to despair. Rather, it suggests that politics is a demon with which environmental health professionals will have to keep wrestling, in one form or another, indefinitely. Restaurant inspections may have grown less political than they were forty years ago, but meanwhile, other environmental health issues have grown more so.
In other words (to paraphrase the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), things get better, but they get worse again, too.
This month's installment of the JEH series on politics and science considers an issue that has been a particular locus of political activity in recent years: the problem of wastewater disposal in unsewered areas. "If there's anything that can cause an environmental health director to lose the backing and support and goodwill of the community, the staff, or both," one retired director told JEH, "it's the sewage disposal program. …