The fight over whether the U.S. government is warping science for political purposes escalated yesterday with new charges leveled at the Bush Administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has supplemented a February report (ScienceNOW 18 February) with examples of Administration officials supposedly rejecting candidates for scientific advisory panels whose views were not sympathetic to the White House.
The new allegations include previously unreported testimonials from scientists alleging they were asked about their political views when they were being considered as candidates for White House and National Institutes of Health (NIH) advisory councils. For example, Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago medical researcher, maintained that she was asked in 2001, while being vetted for the President's Council on Bioethics, if she had voted for President George W. Bush and supported his policies. She says she was appointed only after council chair Leon Kass intervened at her request. (Kass told Science that she "was never rejected.")
The report also cites three similar cases involving NIH panels, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce does not dispute that scientists were asked these questions but says the answers did not affect any appointments and that the practice has since been stopped.
Gerald Keusch, who resigned in December after 5 years as director of the Fogarty International Center at NIH, asserts that there was an "absolute change" in appointing members of his center's advisory panel starting with the Bush Administration. He says that 19 of his 26 proposed appointments over a 3-year period were rejected--including Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel. Political appointees at HHS suggested other names that Keusch found almost wholly inappropriate for the task. The UCS study also maintains that the Administration distorted scientific findings on topics ranging from West Virginia strip mining to a new over-the-counter contraceptive pill and endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Within hours, White House science adviser John Marburger dismissed the latest charges as "a patchwork of disjointed facts and accusations that reach conclusions that are wrong and misleading." Marburger's office declined to respond to specific allegations.
The UCS report makes a number of recommendations to strengthen the wall between science and politics. One would create a team of scientific ombudsmen at federal agencies, and another would establish a center for scientific and technical assessment within the General Accounting Office that could pick up the slack after Congress shut down its Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. "We're not just criticizing--we want to put forward proposals to rectify this," says Kurt Gottfried, a physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and chair of UCS.