DON GONYEA, host:
One of the top domestic priorities for the Bush Administration this year has been promotion of scientific research as a way to ensure American competitiveness in the world. The President unveiled the campaign in his State of the Union address almost four weeks ago.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: First I propose to double the commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next ten years. This funding will support the work of America's most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology and supercomputing and alternative energy sources.
GONYEA: The President has also proposed funding for 70,000 new science and math teachers for U.S. high schools. All of this comes, however, after years of strong criticism of the Bush Administration's approach to scientific research. The basic complaint is that this White House puts political ideology over science when writing policy or when determining who sits on advisory panels set up to provide expertise for decision makers.
In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a petition formally making that charge. It's now been signed by more than 8,000 scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates. Francesca Grifo is the executive director of the organization Scientific Integrity Program.
Ms. FRANCESCA GRIFO (Executive Director, Scientific Integrity Program): We have reports that stay in draft form for a very long time and don't get out to the public. We have reports that are changed after the scientists have, you know, finished with them and catalogued their results. We have, you know, reports that are just simply ignored and overridden.
GONYEA: This month in Science Magazine editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy wrote an editorial critical of the White House focusing on two recent incidents, one that top NASA climate expert James Hansen was told not to talk to the media about his findings, that voluntary measures proposed to deal with climate change won't be sufficient and that the problem is getting worse. NASA has since said a 24-year-old Bush appointee who told Hansen not to talk has resigned.
The other episode cited in the editorial deals with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which Kennedy says has told it's scientists not to do interviews about a study linking increased water temperatures to hurricane intensity. Donald Kennedy spoke to NPR this week.
Mr. DONALD KENNEDY (Editor-in-Chief, Science Magazine): The editorial came as a follow-up to a number of previous incidents that had involved, apparently, fairly significant control of the White House over science appointments in the agencies. There's a lot of unhappiness about that in the scientific community. Took a long time to get some and in some cases there were clearly political tests made on scientists appointed to advisory committees or in government where plainly the major qualifications ought to be the record of accomplishment in research and deep expertise in a discipline.
So when it became clear that Jim Hansen at NASA and several people at NOAA had been told essentially not to talk about the connection between climate change and certain other events, and I think the scientific community saw all that as a kind of additional reflection of a fairly closed posture in the White House, both to science policies that dealt in any effective way with global warming and also to a general sense that information is locked up pretty tight in this administration.
GONYEA: Let me back up a little bit. President Bush in the State of the Union and in travels around the country has been promoting what they call the American competitiveness initiative. What's your take on this proposal?
Mr. KENNEDY: I applaud it. I think the idea of force feeding science education for really talented kids is a good idea. We don't have enough scientists being produced now to operate at the very top level. We do better in the middle but not so well at the very top level. And the expenditures promised for research are good, but of course a president now promising a ten year program is of course subject to the will of not only his successors but the Congress of the United States, which is really concerned about discretionary domestic expenditures.
GONYEA: Dr. Kennedy, who is a neurobiologist, a former president of Stanford University and a former FDA Commissioner, says that while the President's new proposals are positive, they don't address immediate concerns such as global warming.
Mr. KENNEDY: There is a lot of very good basic research that speaks to the climate change issue. The fact is that it isn't getting much traction in the policy world. You can know that things are going to be very significantly more difficult in a warmed up climate and if you can't turn that knowledge into some set of policy mechanisms that seek to forestall the effect or to adapt to it somewhat in advance, then the science research hasn't played its role in human service.
GONYEA: Does your sense, as far as this administration goes, that this is just the way it's going to be?
Mr. KENNEDY: I think it's the way it's going to be as far as this administration is concerned. And I think the scientific community realizes it, does the best it can, and isn't very happy.
GONYEA: Is any of this new? Haven't there always been issues between scientists and politicians watching polls and making policy accordingly?
Mr. KENNEDY: Don, I've asked that question more often than you can believe, and no one can deny that it has gone on at some times in the past and probably more than it should have. I do think that in this administration it has reached a high water mark. Certainly in my experience, and that goes fairly far back.
GONYEA: We also look at today all of the controversy and debate that surrounds something like stem cell research. Are there instances in the past, in the past 50, 60 years or so that have triggered that same kind of political debate that you can think of?
Mr. KENNEDY: I think this year represents the strongest convergence I can remember between science and new scientific discoveries and hot button political issues. You've got climate change, you've got stem cells, you've got intelligent design and the controversies between the evangelical movement and others about that, some alignments in some respects between that issue and the stem cells issue. So there's a lot going on, I think, compared to any time in the past that I can remember.
GONYEA: So even if we can always expect some tension...
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes.
GONYEA: ...when you've got politics bumping up against science, we're in an unusual place now as far as the history goes.
Mr. KENNEDY: It's a banner year.
GONYEA: At the White House, Dr. John Marburger has been the President's science advisor for just over four years. He firmly makes the point that the President's new proposals about increased funding for science are not to be seen as a response to critics of Mr. Bush's science policy.
Dr. JOHN MARBURGER, (Science Advisor to President Bush): No, I've criticized the criticisms for being somewhat irrelevant and not actually solidly based.
GONYEA: Does this though send a message, you think, kind of a counter-message, I guess?
Dr. MARBURGER: I wouldn't even want to link the two in any way.
GONYEA: Ask what's wrong with the criticism, Marburger replies...
Dr. MARBURGER: Well, because they're primarily directed at a relatively small number of very contentious areas like climate change to mention only one, and areas that we know are controversial, stem cells is another one where the issues are hardly science issues, they're ethical issues, they're economic issues, they're issues where there's a great deal of interest and polarization, not only in the science community, and they have acquired a political edge as well. So I tend to stay away from those things. I don't think they're in any way undermining the strength of American science, and we try to keep our eye on the ball.
GONYEA: Though certainly climate change is a science issue. It's not just a political issue.
Dr. MARBURGER: Actually, there's not much disagreement on the science side. It's the question of what should be done about it. As I understand it the controversy is whether you should regulate CO2, and that is clearly a question of strategy. It has huge economic implications, so that it's not simply a science question. The science, you know, there's no, there is essentially no disagreement on the things that are known about climate.
GONYEA: So again, do you think there's basic agreement on the science in terms of the cause of climate change and everything?
Dr. MARBURGER: Sure. I think basically. Because it has become a contentious issue I think we get very polarized reports, highly spun on all sides, that make it confusing for people. But within this administration there hasn't been confusion about this issue ever since the National Academies gave us their report in 2001.
GONYEA: But we've seen scientists leaving the EPA, talking about how their reports have been dismissed or ignored, or that political appointees have changed language.
Dr. MARBURGER: Well, I don't think, I'm not sure we're talking about the EPA. But I'm not, I mean if you'd like to discuss that in some other context, I would be willing to do so.
But the fact is that I have looked at all of these allegations myself to see if what was happening signaled an effort to suppress or censor things that was somehow orchestrated from the top, and I haven't found any evidence of that.
GONYEA: And does that include the Hansen case down at NASA?
Dr. MARBURGER: Yes, the Hansen case as well. I think the NASA administrator has handled that as well as he can, and I think that's a NASA issue right now.
GONYEA: We talked to Don Kennedy, the editor of Science magazine, and he does applaud the President for these increases in funding that he's proposed. But he says the NASA example and scientists at NOAA and reports they have put out that draw connections between hurricane intensity and water temperatures have not been taken seriously or have been just completely ignored or those scientists muzzled. Can you react to that?
Dr. MARBURGER: Yes, he's wrong. I mean it's simply not true.
GONYEA: How is he wrong? Where has he got it so wrong?
Dr. MARBURGER: The assertion that those things are not taken seriously is false. You know, we have a climate change science program that has a very elaborate and multi-faceted strategic plan that designates priority areas to look at, and these topics are discussed in those strategic plans and they're they're being done. The issue of, for example, abrupt climate change and short-term impacts of climate change are very, have a very high priority in the federal programs that are funding climate change science.
GONYEA: Marburger acknowledges the tensions between the administration and the scientific community. I asked him if there are things the White House is doing to try to resolve disagreements.
Dr. MARBURGER: I'm sorry, I don't see that there's a White House function there. I don't, we might be talking about different things. My interest is in getting everyone to understand science.
GONYEA: But certainly the criticism that comes toward the White House, to have a dialogue, you've responded by dismissing most of it.
Dr. MARBURGER: That's right, yeah, mm-hmm.
GONYEA: But that's not dialogue.
Dr. MARBURGER: I'm not sure what you're driving at. In my view these issues are receiving about as much airing as one could possibly want. No one can help learning about these controversies and reading about them in almost every publication. But let me get back to the point.
Dr. MARBURGER: I don't think these issues are terribly significant in the face of the enormous range and magnitude of science that is conducted in this country. They're isolated to a very small number of issues that are known to be highly controversial and politicized, and I just don't think that the heat that has been generated around them is warranted.
GONYEA: Marburger also says that he thinks the relationship between policy makers and scientists is made even more difficult by the rapid pace of scientific progress, that it makes the decisions that have to be made by elected officials harder.
Science magazines Donald Kennedy says he sees no reason to expect any real change in the current tensions, at least during the Bush presidency. Both men do see this debate over science playing a more prominent role in politics in the future.
Our story was produced by Claudine Ebeid with help from Jesse Baker. To listen to expanded versions of our interviews with Donald Kennedy and John Marburger, go to our Web site, npr.org. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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