Political pressures twist science to fit agendas

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The past two decades have seen ever increasing efforts to distort science in support of one political agenda or another.

Avenues that were established for the scientific community to give objective advice to those who govern us have been impaired. This has caused distrust and cynicism in the general public.

Elected officials are as ill equipped as most citizens to understand the implications of scientific advances. Yet the number of issues for which technical, objective advice is needed continues to increase.

Historically, both the executive and legislative branches of government have had advisors and committees to inform them on issues having scientific underpinnings. Typically these areas have been dominated by issues relating to defense, health care, and the environment.

For decades federal funding for the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, Federal Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control and other such bureaus and agencies has served to discover and prevent threats to the health and physical well-being of our citizenry.

The Environmental Protection Agency began operation in 1970 to advise on and enforce laws curtailing pollution, protecting the environment and planning for clean and sustainable energy resources.

Until it lost funding in 1995, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment advised Congress on science matters. The Executive Branch has had a science advisor to the president since FDR. That individual now heads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The OSTP has a mandate to advise the president on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. It is to lead inter-agency efforts to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets.

Furthermore, it works with the private sector to ensure federal investments in science and technology contribute to economic prosperity, environmental quality and national security. And finally, it promotes partnerships between all levels of government and the scientific community and evaluates the effectiveness of federal efforts.

That these advisory offices and individuals be independent and objective is paramount. But in recent decades, committees, offices and advisors have been subjected to inexcusable pressures to take positions supportive of political agendas.

Some appointees, who were leaders in their fields of research, have been subjected to political litmus tests, being asked about their political thoughts and voting record. In other instances committees were packed with representatives whose credentials were suspect.

These individuals have histories with the very industries whose activities were likely to be scrutinized by the committee. Such industry friendly representatives have taken positions significantly at odds with the preponderance of their scientific peers. They have become adept at creating roadblocks to action.

Unpublished, industry-sponsored research data has been used to confound matters. Typically, this research is at odds with published, peer-reviewed data from multiple independent sources.

By these means, they have created doubt in the minds of those they advised. This has happened despite there being no reasonable doubt in the science community about the matter under consideration.

By having packed committees, office holders, or their cronies, could hear what they wanted, and hype it to their constituency. The muddied waters have given them excuses to take the action or inaction they intended from the beginning.

Legislation that has hamstrung access to independent information has been the Data Quality Act, passed in 2001. This legislation was designed not to bring the best science to our legislators, but to slow or block action.

This act, under the smoke screen of regulatory reform, has required agencies to submit scientific studies to “peer review” panels. Even if their work had been subjected to the usual standards of peer review, they had to submit to another “review” that was likely dominated by industry friendly scientists.

In some instances, small cadres of industry scientists and lawyers, having defended perhaps the tobacco industry on the health effects of smoking, have moved on to defend other industries whose activities pose threats to public health.

Quietly sponsored by industry, a host of institutes and coalitions have sprung up specifically to bolster efforts to obscure scientific findings. They sound credible enough, taking such names as The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. However, they have no credible science agenda.

The Western Fuels Association, National Coal Association and Edison Electric created the Information Council on the Environment. It does no research, its purpose being public relations and lobbying.

They are disingenuous in their pleas for balanced presentations of scientific findings. They rarely have credible evidence for their contrarian opinions. As their methodology shows their true purpose is to sow doubt in the minds of the public and legislators.

For those who actually do science, there are professional organizations that advocate for standards and disseminate findings from research. Those organizations have been appalled by the techniques used to discredit sound science and have gone on record expressing their concerns.

These organizations have long histories. They did not just spring up to make a case for the issue of the day. Their fear is not only that policies and laws will be put in force that are based on misinformation, or that funding will be misdirected, but that public confidence in science will be eroded.

The National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Public Health Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and many others have weighed in with their concerns.

In 2004 the Union of Concerned Scientist held a press conference during which it released a document that would eventually be signed by 48 Nobel Laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, and 135 members of the National Academy of Science.

The document gave specific examples of misrepresentations and suppression of scientific information. It revealed tampering with reports and the process by which scientific advice was made available. It included examples of distortions of information on climate change, quashing of government scientific reports, and stacking scientific advisory panels.

Science can only inform us on what is known and what is possible. When disagreements arise between scientists, they can only be resolved by new data or better analysis. This is not the way of politics.

There are many issues where science informs us on matters having ethical implications, or which bear on security or budgetary priorities. Though reasonable people will disagree on these matters, no one should distort the findings of science to solidify their position.

Steve Luckstead is a medical physicist in the radiation oncology department at St. Mary Medical Center. He can be reached at steveluckstead@charter.net.

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