Friday, February 29, 2008

Scientific Freedom and The Public Good

I love the Union of Concerned Scientists, and use their articles, reports and papers often as reference material in various posts. Why do I love them?... Let me count the ways. Well, I love them mainly because they are concerned about everything. As is only exactly right in our current world, they are concerned about: global warming and all its ramifications, about nuclear weapons proliferation and its logical sequel nuclear terrorism, about our food and what is happening to it as a result of such practices as genetic engineering, overuse of antibiotics in livestock, cloning of food animals. And over all of these concerns is the subject they seem to currently be making their main priority: scientific integrity in the pursuit of the public welfare, in government policy making.

Anyone who has been paying even minimal attention during the seven-going-on-eight years of the Bush administration is aware that manipulating science has become a widespread strategy for winning debates about government policies

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that contradict established policies. In some cases, they have manipulated the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.
There is a great deal of information about this practice on the UCS site, but an easy way to get an overview of the many individual cases of political interference in science that have been exposed (by whistle blowers, non-governmental agencies and others) and reported in the mainstream press is to spend some time with this handy little chart: The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science. Amusingly arranged in the shape of the Periodic Table we all lovingly remember from high school chemistry class, this resource details dozens of recent allegations of political interference in federal science from 2001 to the present. The examples are presented in several accessible ways with primary source documentation. Featured among the new entries are attempts to politicize the water management policies in the Klamath River basin, compromise the integrity of an environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal mining, and downplay the dangers of toxic formaldehyde leaks in FEMA trailers.

But this administration will soon be leaving the corridors of power, hopefully taking its political appointees to federal agencies with it. Anticipating this joyful event, two weeks ago a group of prominent scientists called on the U.S. government to establish conditions that would enable federal scientists to produce the scientific knowledge that is needed by a government dedicated to the public good. In a report accompanying the statement the UCS details specific steps that Congress and the administration can take to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making. The report also explores how science has been misused, with a special focus on systemic changes that hamper federal scientific capacity and make it more difficult for federal agencies like the EPA, FDA, and CDC to fulfill their missions.

The report, Federal Science and the Public Good, is available as a PDF file on the UCS site, but as the full report is 52 pages long, you might want to start with the Executive Summary, a mere eight pages. The actual report document is a wonderful thing to browse, however, the photos and quotes illustrating its pages have convinced me that time spent reading the entire text will be time well spent. I can only hope that this report will be placed squarely in the hands of all candidates for office in 2009, and that they take every word to heart. The quote that ends the document made me long for a time when these words can again be true:

We are not afraid to entrust the
American people with unpleasant
fact, foreign ideas, alien philosophies,
and competitive values. For a nation
that is afraid to let its people judge
the truth and falsehood in an open
market is a nation that is afraid
of its people. John F. Kennedy

(Cartoon is winner of UCS' 2008 Science Idol Contest)

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posted at 11:35:00 AM by marigolds2

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