Who Owns Science?

Peter Wood

Chris Mooney, a freelance writer and correspondent with The American Prospect, has an essay in the current issue of The New Scientist titled “Hail to the Intellectual President.” The gist of it is that President Bush was “the consummate anti-intellectual,”—and very bad for the nation’s pursuit of scientific research; and President Obama, by contrast, is the opposite: “If Obama pulls off governing as an intellectual president, the dividends could be enormous.” 

A few years ago, before Obama arrived to serve as counterpoint, Mooney wrote a whole book, decrying the The Republican War on Science (2005). This was partisanship served up neat. Even the New York Times reviewer, John Horgan, described it as "a diatribe, from start to finish."   In his New Scientist article, Mooney sticks close to form. 

But he also gives voice to a conceit that is in wide circulation in academe. At its most cartoonish, the conceit is “Bush bad; Academe imperiled; Obama good; Academe saved.”  Imagine fair Olive Oyl, struggling against the dishonorable intentions of Brutus, but saved in the nick-of-time by vege-vore Popeye. This isn’t very far from the breathless accounts in much of the academic press. A week after the election, the Chronicle of Higher Education announced, “America Elected a Professor in Chief.” The article noted that both Obama and Biden and both of their spouses had held positions in higher education.

Is the conceit justified?  It certainly isn’t beyond the pale of reason to consider that one party or one president may be better than another in advancing the interests of scientific research and the welfare of higher education. Presidents set priorities. They propose budgets. They sign and veto bills. They issue executive orders.  So surely there is a record that could be objectively assessed for President Bush. President Obama’s time in office has been too short to offer a comparable assessment.

Beginning in 1998, President Clinton sought to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health. Bush followed through on this. In 2001 the NIH budget stood at $20 billion, but by 2003—under Bush— it was $27 billion. It is quite true that President Bush didn’t surpass that contribution to science, but it is also true that he kept this massive increase in place, at about $28 billion. That doubling, according to the federal budget, “has yielded the world’s largest investment in biomedical research.” This is not exactly an expression of hostility to science, unless the new standard is to keep on doubling NIH funding every five years. 

The Bush administration’s policies may in some cases have prompted a shift from government to private sector funding. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, in 2005, private sector funding for research and development reached a record high of $40 billion. This wasn’t because scientists, starved for support, went looking for new sources. It was because the Bush administration created an “R&D tax credit that lets companies write off a portion of their R&D expenses.” This was not a wise move if Bush’s goal was to suppress science. 

Some of this material I’ve drawn from Alison McCook’s article in The Scientist, “Sizing Up Bush on Science,” but it isn’t hard to find other data that runs against the cartoon image of Bush as an anti-science Brutus.

In Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address he called on Congress “to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.”   Congress delivered, and as Bush’s term wound down last summer, he signed a five-year extension of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The new funding commits up to $8 billion, “the largest commitment by any nation to fight a single disease.”   The program extended anti-retroviral treatment from about 50,000 in sub-Saharan Africa in 2003 to 1.7 million today, and the funding supports treatment for tuberculosis and malaria, as well as AIDS. 

Some of us are dubious of the “science” behind global warming. There are numerous reasons to be skeptical, but to take one, the temperature readings collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the United States depend on 1,221 climate-monitoring stations overseen by the National Weather Service. The Heartland Institute has just issued a disturbing report titled “Is the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Reliable,” that includes more than 100 photographs of these climate-monitoring stations, showing our official temperature gauges placed in the middle of asphalt parking lots, next to air conditioning unit exhaust fans, and on concrete slabs next to roadways. Official U.S. temperature records have been—there is no other word for it—cooked. The examination of this scandal continues

Professing skepticism is not ordinarily construed as being “anti-science.” To the contrary, skepticism based on the careful examination of evidence and the rational consideration of competing hypotheses is usually taken as the hallmark of science. 

This seems pertinent since one of the particulars in the anti-science charge against Bush is that he failed to take “global warming” with sufficient seriousness. How much should the federal government spend to explore a disputed hypothesis? Would $29 billion seem too skimpy? That’s what Bush spent between 2001 and 2006. No doubt it falls far short of what some wanted, but the advocates of spending more cannot in fairness call Bush’s actions anti-science. If Bush himself doubted some of the global warming hype, it didn’t prevent his administration from substantially funding research into the supposed science. This is normally called open-mindedness.

On the other hand, the Obama-era EPA sees no room for rational doubt in the global warming debate. On April 17, the EPA issued its “case closed” finding that greenhouse gasses contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health and welfare.   Perhaps the EPA is right; perhaps not. But it is hardly in the spirit of science to declare, by administrative fiat, that an active scientific debate is over. 

NASA’s budget peaked in the early 1990s under President George Herbert Walker Bush and steadily declined in the Clinton years from about $18.6 billion to $14.9 billion (2007 constant dollars).    President George W. Bush reversed the slide, taking NASA’s budget back up to $15.4 million in his first year. The Bush NASA budget fluctuated from year to year, between $15.6 billion $16.1 billion, but jumped to $17.1 billion during Bush’s last year. NASA had many accomplishments during this era, but conspicuously struggled with the question of whether to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. In August 2004, NASA announced plans to send a robotic fix-it mission, but in January 2005, the mission was scuttled because of budget worries. Then in October 2006, NASA decided to go ahead with the manned mission that we have just seen spectacularly succeed. This too is a Bush-era project from a supposedly anti-science administration. 

In some cases, Bush’s scientific ambitions outran what he could get from Congress. In 2002, he signed a reauthorization bill for the National Science Foundation that would have doubled NSF’s budget from $4.79 billion in 2002 to $9.8 billion in 2007. As often happens, the authorization was not fulfilled with the requisite appropriations. In 2003, the NSF budget stayed at $4.7 billion and then, year by year, climbed modestly until it reached $6.1 billion in Bush’s last year. 

I don’t suppose mere facts are going to get in the way of the academic left’s narrative on this matter, or indeed the grumbling of scientists for whom no amount of money would be enough. Back in 2006, McCook quoted Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of Scientists, to the effect that researchers in the biological sciences had been spoiled during the Clinton years into thinking they could have whatever they asked for. When the fantastic and unsustainable increases in funding stopped, they threw a tantrum, declaring that science itself was under assault. That’s when crude partisans such as Chris Mooney saw an opportunity and seized it. 

The issue that cements Bush’s reputation as a barbarian who was determined to suborn science to his political ends is, of course, stem cell research. Bush famously curtailed the use of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research except on existing stem cell lines. He did this explicitly on moral grounds, not as a rejection of scientific inquiry or medical research. In 2001 Bush appointed a Council on Bioethics, chaired by University of Chicago Leon Cass, a physician, biochemist, and teacher of ethics, to advise him on the matter. Agree or disagree with Bush’s conclusion, it was founded on careful and scientifically-informed reasoning. Many, including some prominent scholars, think his decision was right.   Those who think it mistaken are free to present their own reasoned arguments, but characterizing Bush’s decision as anti-intellectual doesn’t wash. 

My aim in this essay is not to cast a glow of approbation over President Bush’s legacy. Bush’s actions as president frequently displeased me. I disagreed strongly with parts of his educational agenda and I am long on record as a sharp critic of his second Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings.   Even in the realm of science programs, I disagree with a good many of his choices.  

My point is not to find perfection in a flawed political record, but to call on scholars and scientists to leave aside the childish Manichaeism in which President Bush stands for whatever is parochial, narrow-minded, and anti-intellectual in American life, and President Obama enters the scene as the fair-minded, cosmopolitan, and intellectually savvy voice of enlightenment. That President Obama will spend a lot more money than President Bush on things that academics tend to like is bound to be true. That this will make for an age of better science remains to be seen. It isn’t especially promising that the first fruits are the widespread adoption of a cartoon history of the recent past. Science did extremely well under President Bush. To believe the contrary is self-delusion—never a good place to ground a claim to superior insight.

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