Article — From the June 2007 issue
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Try, if you will, to summarize the Bush Administration’s position on the science of global warming. In 2006, the president could be found stating that a “fundamental debate” persisted over whether the phenomenon is human caused or “natural.” When an expert body of the United Nations announced in early 2007 that most of the warming had been human-induced, however, a White House press release endorsed that conclusion. But within weeks, Vice President Dick Cheney had undercut it again, claiming that no consensus existed over the extent to which global warming is “part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man.”
If you survey such statements—and the Bush Administration’s record on global warming generally—seeking consistency, you’re signing up for madness. That is because again and again, the administration has sought to “manage” inconvenient scientific information on this subject from a public relations standpoint rather than take it seriously or use it to inform policy. And it’s not just climate science. A similar P.R.-oriented approach has been apparent across a range of issues, subjects sharing few commonalities save that they motivate the Republican base: embryonic stem cell research, mercury pollution, sex education and condom effectiveness, endangered-species protections, and many more. In these and other areas, under the Bush Administration we have seen scientists suppressed, scientific reports forcefully edited or censored, scientific advisory committees politically tilted, and widespread distortion and misrepresentation of scientific knowledge. The resulting “war on science” has delivered a severe blow to morale at the taxpayer-funded government agencies whose job it is to use such knowledge to serve and protect us. And it has spurred justifiable skepticism of the notion, perhaps idealized but nonetheless admirable, that our government can live up to the Enlightenment idea of decision-making based on the best available information.
Misinformation, by contrast, can have serious consequences. On global warming, for example, we have lost six years—and likely eight—during which we could have been solving the ever-worsening crisis. On embryonic stem cell research, we might have profited greatly from six years—and likely eight—of less constrained federally funded research; instead, states have had to create their own scientific programs because the federal government has been so shackled in this area. On Iraq, for that matter, we might not have stampeded to war quite so easily if Bush and Cheney had not misled us into thinking that confiscated aluminum tubes were intended for centrifuges in a secret nuclear weapons program, rather than merely for more conventional rocketry. On such issues, we can never make up for the time lost, the opportunities squandered.
In other respects, though, a new administration could work constructively to mend the science-politics relationship. The first step is to choose a distinguished scientist to serve as the presidential science adviser—the government’s top scientist, who heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—and, more important, to make sure this scientist is allowed into the president’s inner circle. Bush made major policy decisions on both global warming and embryonic stem cell research before his presidential science adviser, physicist John Marburger, had even been confirmed by the Senate, and once Marburger was in place, the OSTP was essentially marginalized: Marburger named only half as many Senate-confirmed deputies as served his predecessor during the Clinton Administration. Several years later it would come out that Bush met with the contrarian novelist Michael Crichton for a chat about climate science—such was the high regard in which the president apparently held science advice, a critical mechanism intended to ensure informed governance. If the new president restored OSTP and made it just as influential as, say, the National Security Council (a similar White House branch), this would further signal that scientific advice would be taken seriously in the new administration.
Steps also should be taken to rehabilitate the scientific reputation of the federal agencies—from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to the Fish and Wildlife Service—which has been so damaged over the past six years, and to restore the morale of the
career-scientist staff they employ. Democrats in Congress, who have broadly accepted the notion that the Bush Administration has mistreated science and proposed various measures to address the problem, have outlined a logical means of achieving this rehabilitation. The office of the president’s science adviser should take the lead in a government-wide initiative to investigate the state of scientific integrity within these agencies. To ensure cooperation, the president should publicly instruct his new cabinet secretaries—and particularly those in charge of agencies that have seen major science problems—to aid OSTP in the task and to make restoring scientific integrity a top priority in their respective departments. In particular, communication policies will have to be scrutinized, government-wide, to ensure that aides in public affairs offices can’t prevent distinguished scientists on the government payroll from speaking to the press.
The new administration should also change the role of two White House offices that appear to have been chief culprits in the heavy-handed and overcentralized management (or mismanagement) of scientific information during the Bush Administration: the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The CEQ, as mentioned above, was repeatedly caught trying to modify the language of scientific reports being produced by expert agencies. The OMB, especially under first-term administrator John Graham, used thin statutory language (the so-called Data Quality Act) to radically revamp the role that scientific information plays in the regulatory decision-making process—in essence, raising the burden of proof that must be satisfied before agencies can take action, on the basis of science, to protect public health and the environment. This type of meddling must cease; the agencies themselves must be trusted to present the science accurately and without interference.
Finally, in order to repair the relationship between America’s government and its scientists, a new administration should make the reconciliation a public one. Our next president should pledge, after taking office or perhaps even on the campaign trail, to ensure that the same kinds of abuses will not recur on his or her watch. And this must be accompanied by a strong statement about the nature of government itself: expert scientific agencies must be allowed to go about their business without political staff at the White House corrupting the language of their reports. A comfortable distance must be re-established between the experts and those who are trying, as one NASA aide so infamously put it, to “make the president look good.”