Science, Politics, and U.S. Democracy: Unless Scientists and Policymakers Learn to Work Together Effectively, Both Domains Will Suffer

By Branscomb, Lewis M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Science, Politics, and U.S. Democracy: Unless Scientists and Policymakers Learn to Work Together Effectively, Both Domains Will Suffer


Branscomb, Lewis M., Issues in Science and Technology


Political manipulation of scientific evidence in the interest of ideological convictions has been a commonplace of the U.S. democracy since the end of World War II. In 1952, the incoming secretary of commerce, Sinclair Weeks, fired Alan Astin, director of the National Bureau of Standards, after the Bureau's electrochemists testified for the Federal Trade Commission and Post Office in a suit to stop a small Republican manufacturer from Oakland, California, from fraudulent advertising. The Bureau found that the product, a battery additive called ADX-2, was worthless, and over time would actually harm a battery. Because the administration believed that caveat emptor should take precedence over a laboratory analysis of the product, the Bureau's work came into conflict with the ideology of the Eisenhower administration. Senate Republicans accused the government scientists of not taking the "play of the marketplace" into account in their research. This became a raging controversy that was eventually resolved by Astin's vindication and reinstatement as well as the dismissal of the undersecretary who had urged the firing of Astin in the first place. In January 1973, President Nixon abolished the White House Office of Science and Technology (OST) and the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), when some scientists spoke out publicly against the president's plans for funding the supersonic transport and the antiballistic missile system. Congress and President Ford subsequently reinstated the office by statute.

Both parties have occasionally yielded to the temptation to punish scientists who objected to government policy by cutting their research funding. President Johnson is said to have personally scratched out certain academic research projects because of the researchers' opposition to the war in Vietnam. When President Carter took office in 1977, his Department of Energy (DOE), during the furor over the energy crisis, inherited a study called the Market Oriented Program Planning Study (MOPPS), which found both lower projected demand and a greater abundance of future natural gas supply than the "Malthusians" found acceptable. DOE reportedly sent the study back to the MOPPS team several times, seeking an assessment of future energy resources more acceptable to the administration. They finally ordered the study removed from the shelves of depository libraries, forced the resignation of the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and removed Christian Knudsen from his position as director of the MOPPS survey.

But the past two years have been unique in the number, scope, and intensity of press reports and scientists' allegations of political interference with the processes for bringing objective scientific information and advice to government policy decisions. The most extensive compilation and interpretation of the allegations of misuse of science advice by the Bush administration is that produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS); a similar compilation is available on the Web site of Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the Committee on Government Reform. These accusations include suppression or manipulation by high ranking officials of information bearing on public health and the environment, replacement of experts on advisory committees when their views came into conflict with industry or ideological interests, screening of candidates for such committees for their political views, and the deletion of important scientific information from government Web sites. Although a response to the UCS report by the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) disputed some of the details, the controversy between the scientific community and the administration is not so much over whether these events occurred but rather on the interpretation that should be placed on them and what they might mean for the future of the nation's democracy.

Were these cases examples of unacceptable interference by government officials with entrenched political or ideological positions, resulting in their corruption of otherwise objective science advice? …

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