schussman.com logo

The Right Science

The Bush administration likes to talk about science: The science on global warming isn’t in, they say (after their own agencies submit a contradictory report to the UN); stem cell research requires careful consideration, they tell us, and Bush is depicted as nothing short of a champion bio-ethicist-slash-geneticist for invoking his stem cell policy. Over and over, we are told that controversial issues are about the science. Disputing this fairy tale, the LA Times is running a story about the administration’s ideological vetting of science advisors, in which it’s suggested that politics matters far more than good science. Sounds a lot like the recent John Dilulio story of politics versus policy in the West Wing. An excerpt:
Miller, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said he received a call early this year asking whether he would serve on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, which guides funding and policy decisions at a unit of the National Institutes of Health.

Then came the call from someone at Thompson’s office.

“The first question he asked me was, ‘Are you sympathetic to faith-based initiatives?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘OK, you’re one for one.’ ”

Then the caller asked Miller about his views on needle exchange programs, the death penalty for drug kingpins and abortion, keeping a running tally of where his views agreed with those of the White House. Finally, the caller asked whether Miller had voted for Bush. When Miller said he had not, the caller asked him to explain.

“You have to admire the audacity,” Miller said last week. “It seemed rather clear that the White House wanted to make sure they wouldn’t receive any advice inconsistent with their own positions.”

“In an ideal world, you’d choose people based on their scientific credentials, their knowledge of the literature,” he said. “Maybe that’s too ideal a world.”An admin spokesperson suggests that this all really boils down to a difference in style, arguing that Tommy Thompson (Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary, the decision-maker in some of these situations) is much more of a manager, much more careful at scrutinizing scientific appointments than Clinton’s HHS Secretary, whom he derides as an “academic.” Right, those crazy wingnut academic types, they’re always going off and doing things—like appointing science advisors—without thinking carefully. So that’s what peer review is really for.