When George W. Bush and members of his administration talk about environmental policy, the phrase "sound science" rarely goes unuttered. On issues ranging from climate change to the storage of nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain, our president has assured us that he's backing up his decisions with careful attention to the best available research.
It's not just Bush: Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives, led by Reps. Chris Cannon of Utah and Jim Gibbons of Nevada, have announced the formation of a "Sound Science Caucus" to ramp up the role of "empirical" and "peer reviewed" data in laws such as the Endangered Species Act. And last August the Office of Management and Budget unveiled a proposal to amplify the role of "peer review" in the evaluation of scientific research conducted by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It all sounds noble enough, but the phrases "sound science" and "peer review" don't necessarily mean what you might think. Instead, they're part of a lexicon used to put a pro-science veneer on policies that most of the scientific community itself tends to be up in arms about. In this Orwellian vocabulary, "peer review" isn't simply an evaluation by learned colleagues. Instead, it appears to mean an industry-friendly plan to require such exhaustive analysis that federal agencies could have a hard time taking prompt action to protect public health and the environment. And "sound science" can mean, well, not-so-sound science.
Dig into the origins of the phrase "sound science" as a slogan in policy disputes, and its double meaning becomes clearer. That use of the term goes back to a campaign waged by the tobacco industry to undermine the indisputable connection between smoking and disease. Industry documents released as a result of tobacco litigation show that in 1993 Philip Morris and its public relations firm, APCO Associates, created a nonprofit front group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) to fight against the regulation of cigarettes. To mask its true purpose, TASSC assembled a range of anti-regulatory interests under one umbrella. The group also challenged the now widely accepted notion that secondhand smoke poses health risks.
Since then, other industry groups have invoked "sound science" to ease government restrictions. In 1996, Jerry J. Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole's "emphasis on sound science, the need to apply cost-benefit analyses and finding some way to enforce common sense in the regulatory process are most important to the business community." In April 2001, Vice President Cheney's energy task force urged the Interior Department to open up more of Alaska for oil and gas drilling based on "sound science and the best available technology." Last October, Allen James, president of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a group of manufacturers and suppliers of pest management products, urged the use of pesticides to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes in a letter to the Post. "As a citizen, I expect my elected officials to consider sound science in making decisions that affect my health and the health of my neighbors. Sound science says pesticide sprays are safe and effective," he wrote.
The phrase "sound science" has also become part of a political sales pitch. In 2002, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz wrote in a memorandum for GOP congressional candidates that "The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science." The choice of words -- as much as policy -- was the key to swaying public opinion, he suggested, providing a voter-friendly vocabulary list. On climate change, "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed," he added. "There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." In this instance, "sound science" seems to mean undermining the robust consensus that has developed in the scientific community on climate change -- precisely the opposite of what you'd expect.
The fact that Democrats such as former EPA administrator Carol Browner and Sen. John F. Kerry have used the phrase to defend their views only furthers Luntz's goal of blurring distinctions on these issues.
President Bush isn't claiming that cigarettes are safe. But if you switch from examining rhetoric to analyzing policy, it turns out that he's treating science in much the same way that tobacco companies did -- as a means of justifying predetermined political conclusions. In a statement this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists, more than 60 scientific luminaries -- including leading policymakers from previous administrations and 20 Nobel laureates -- charge that Bush has "systematically" undermined the role traditionally played by scientific information in presidential policymaking.
None of these scientists thinks Bush's science is actually sound -- and they ought to know. In fact, if you examine the administration's record, Bush's supposed commitment to science unravels in much the same way that the case for war against Iraq did. Instead, an alternative narrative emerges, in which many science policies have been corrupted by political considerations.
Start early in the administration, with the 2001 release of the third assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Marshaling the work of thousands of scientists worldwide, the U.N. body found that climate change was indeed happening, thanks to our relentless pumping of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bush's reaction: Put the policy before the science. Calling our understanding of the global climate "incomplete," he pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol. Only then did the administration ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review, in the space of a month, the IPCC's report, which had been years in the making. Sure enough, the NAS confirmed the IPCC's findings -- embarrassing Bush and exposing the flaws in his approach to science policymaking.
The president's approach to stem cell research was more startling. After making a great show of agonizing over whether to permit federal funding of research involving the destruction of human embryos, Bush unveiled a cannily crafted "compromise" position that appeared to preserve scientific research but in fact doomed it. In a speech to the nation on Aug. 9, 2001, Bush promised that "more than 60" preexisting stem cell lines would be available for federally funded research. As journalist Stephen Hall has shown in his book "Merchants of Immortality," this was at best a misunderstanding and, at worst, a deliberate deception.
Given stem cell variety, even 60 lines would have hampered the search for the most promising research candidates. But it soon became clear to biologists that the 60 supposed "cell lines" weren't actually that at all. Some were merely cells extracted from blastocysts, which might never develop into research-ready lines capable of being turned into different types of human tissue. The NIH Web site today lists only 15 stem cell lines suitable for shipping to scientists, limiting both the amount and variety of research that can be done. This partly explains why this month's breakthrough of the cloning of a human embryo for its stem cells came from South Korea, not the United States.
Stem cell research and climate change have dominated the news, but the scientific case against Bush doesn't rest upon them alone. On issues ranging from missile defense to ergonomics to early childhood development, a similar pattern of cart-before-the-horse thinking is evident.
Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services, citing the need for "sound science," challenged a World Health Organization report linking obesity to soft drinks, junk food and fast food. "Only by employing open and transparent processes that are science-based and peer-reviewed can the WHO . . . produce a credible product," HHS said.
The administration has tampered with the scientific process at the personnel level, too. In a January 2003 editorial titled "An Epidemic of Politics," Science magazine editor in chief Donald Kennedy lamented the politicization of scientific advisory committees -- a little noticed alphabet soup of boards, panels and study groups sometimes called the "Fifth Branch" of government -- across numerous federal agencies.
Normally, agencies like the EPA use such committees to bring expertise into their decision-making processes. But under the Bush administration, full committees were disbanded, while others were stacked with nominees who have pro-life and pro-industry stances. One prominent scientist told the Los Angeles Times that during a screening interview for committee membership he was asked his views on abortion and whether he'd voted for Bush. "What's unusual about the current epidemic is not that the Bush administration examines candidates for compatibility with its 'values,' " wrote Kennedy. "It's how deep the practice cuts."
There will always be a gap between pure science and the making of policy. For a healthy relationship between the two spheres to exist, science shouldn't dictate political choices; it should underpin them, much as good intelligence can inform national security decisions. Policymakers should consult with scientists, then factor what they learn into their decisions -- especially today, when it's hard to find a political issue, from Medicare reform to Iraq's nuclear program, that lacks a core scientific component.
Under Bush, however, this crucial relationship has been upended. Instead of allowing facts to inform policies, preexisting political commitments have twisted facts and tainted information. If Bush insists on calling this "sound science," so be it. The English language will probably survive. But the once-cooperative relationship between politicians and scientists in this country seems to be in serious jeopardy.
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