Politicizing science no more

    The United States has suffered years of anti-science policy under the Bush regime. In this year of US presidential elections, scientists have an even greater obligation to make science policy part of the election campaign.

    For the past 7 years, the regime of US President Bush has seemingly undermined science. In what Hillary Rodham Clinton aptly calls “the war on science,” the Bush administration has been guilty of undermining science to advance its own political policies. This was made transparent by the former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who testified before Congress last year that the Bush administration had repeatedly 'watered down' or suppressed public health reports for political gain. It is Bush who claimed there were at least 60 stem cell lines available for federally funded research, when only 15 exist. And, famously, it was Bush who refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement and pronounced climate science “incomplete” back in 2001. With the US presidential elections rapidly approaching, scientists have an obligation to pull together and ensure this anti-science era is a thing of the past.

    Investment in science and technology is vital to driving the economic engine of the United States. More than ever, the future prosperity of the United States will depend on the next president setting the correct scientific policies. Annual investment in science and technology must be sufficient to keep ahead of foreign competition. The stem cell issue must be addressed, climate change must be tackled and more modern energy policies must be adopted. The new president must be seen to take science seriously and to effectively communicate scientific issues to the lay person so they understand the issues at stake.

    Careful and timely appointment of heads of science agencies will be imperative. The Bush regime failed to appoint leaders of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration for a year. Equally bad, Bush took until the end of 2001 to name John Marburger III the presidential science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Even then, unlike his predecessors, Marburger was not named 'assistant to the president' on science matters. In addition, many scientific policy decisions on controversial areas such as stem cell research and global warming had been made before his appointment. Furthermore, many government advisory panels were allegedly 'stacked' with scientists with ties to industry or with strong religious views. This must not be repeated.

    It is a paradox that although science lies at the heart of a nation's prosperity, scientists all too infrequently become involved in politics. This is even stranger given the heavy dependence of scientists on government grants and policy direction. Scientists are conspicuously absent from elected offices. Of the 540 members of the US House of Representatives, only 7 identify themselves as scientists or engineers, and the US Senate contains no scientists or engineers at all. The last president with any scientific credentials was Jimmy Carter and, before that, Herbert Hoover. Lobbyists for scientists and engineers have been equally conspicuous. Scientists need to be encouraged to enter the political arena.

    Although many scientists may feel they cannot influence US politics, a look back in history shows that this is untrue. During the 1964 presidential campaign, thousands of scientists joined forces under the banner of Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey to help defeat the pronuclear Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Bipartisan, grassroots, activist organizations were formed in every state to promote the Johnson ticket. Many scientists traveled extensively to push their point home to the public. Money was raised and rallies were held, including one in Washington attended by celebrities, which drew a crowd of more than 4,000. The net result was an unprecedented landslide victory for the Johnson camp.

    Given the importance of science to the competitiveness and problems faced by the United States, it is disappointing that science policy is nearly completely absent from the present presidential debates. Indeed, finding information on the attitudes of the main presidential candidates toward science and research from their websites is often difficult. Clinton has the most detailed description; in particular, she proposes to increase the NIH budget by over 50% over 5 years and aims to double it over 10 years. Furthermore, she would reinvigorate the Office of Science and Integrity. Barack Obama also advocates increasing federal funding for basic research. Support for scientific research is absent from Mitt Romney's website, except for a discussion of energy research. John McCain and Mike Huckabee also fail to mention scientific research. An in-depth look at the candidates' stances on science-related issues gleaned from policy papers, from past statements of office holders and from advisors can be found in the 4 January 2008 issue of Science.

    The importance of science in today's society and the difficulty in finding information on the presidential candidates' stances on science policy has prompted some scientists to take action. Last summer in Aspen, Colorado, a group of scientists, journalists and business people established a working group to investigate ways in which scientific and business communities might make science become an issue in the 2008 campaign. Subsequently, a coalition of high-profile scientists, politicians and other 'thought leaders', under the guise of Science Debate 2008, issued a call for a US presidential debate devoted to science and technology. This year, Scientists and Engineers for America launched the Science, Health and Related Policies Network, a wiki-based system that will allow the public to determine the positions of their elected officials on science and health. In addition, Scientists and Engineers for America has a program to educate scientists on how to become involved in the political process.

    These are all promising signs and should be applauded. But more should be done to bring scientific issues to the fore during this campaign season. In this context, we strongly encourage all scientists to mobilize and to wield their considerable influence on the political process, just as they did back in 1964.

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    Politicizing science no more. Nat Immunol 9, 217 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/ni0308-217

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