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No faith in science

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"It's part of an anti-scientific revolution," said Columbia University professor Peter Bearman, commenting on the push to keep safe-sex education out of schools. "There's a lot of hostility toward science in America right now."

Over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., has documented dozens of alleged cases where it argues that the Bush administration has sacrificed scientific integrity in the interests of big business, big oil and the religious right. It cites censored data, altered websites and the appointment of under-qualified extremists as science advisers while other candidates are asked if they voted for Mr. Bush.

Last February, the UCS drafted a petition to "restore scientific integrity" to government policymaking and 62 prominent scientists signed on. That number swelled to 4,000 before last fall's U.S. election, and the protest now bears more than 6,300 signatures, including 48 Nobel laureates and former presidential science advisers dating back to the Eisenhower administration.

Government supporters suggest that scientists are traditionally liberal secularists, and simply resentful that the balance of power has tilted out of their favour.

Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the powerful government body that oversees medical research, argued that scientists who backed Democrat John Kerry for president are the ones who "have politicized" issues. Asked why scientists felt such opposition, he replied: "We don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. . . . There's no shortage of researchers who are ready to roll up their sleeves and do hard work. So that's fine, we don't want 'em."

Founded in 1969, the UCS does have a history of protesting against conservative-leaning government policy, but it hardly stands alone in its criticisms of the Bush administration. Leading scientific journals, professional societies and mainstream media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have featured editorials, speakers and articles noting the alleged abuses.

"Scientists are not known for signing [petitions] like this," said UCS spokesman Lexi Schultz. But the current situation, she said, "is different, qualitatively and quantitatively, than anything we've seen before."

The Emory team, led by sociologist Yarghos Apostolopoulos and Sevil Sonmez, now has the results of its truck-stop study in hand and believes more than ever in its merits.

They found that truck drivers, often exhausted and lonely, are undoubtedly "bridges" ferrying infections back to their wives and partners at home. Blood tests at three Atlanta truck stops turned up STDs from Hepatitis C to HIV, in some cases in people who had no idea they had been infected.

Dr. Sonmez stressed that not all truckers are involved in risky behaviour. "But even if it were 10 per cent or 5 per cent of the four million truckers . . . you are looking at quite a disaster" in terms of chains of transmission. "Unless you understand what is going on, the dynamics of the infection, you cannot do anything to prevent it."

The Emory group hopes to win a second grant to survey truckers across the country. Given the evidence, Dr. Sonmez remains optimistic that "efforts will not pay off to stop this kind of research."

But scientists offer numerous examples of cases where ideology has eclipsed empirical evidence. Felicia Stewart, former deputy assistant secretary of population affairs under Bill Clinton, noted that scientists have struggled before under conservative leadership, but she said previous cases tended to be about money. "We've not had this level of religiosity before," she said.

Dr. Stewart, now co-director of the University of California's Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy, cites the ongoing battle at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over over-the-counter emergency contraception.

Research suggests that allowing women faster, non-prescription access to Plan B, a high-dose contraceptive best taken within 72 hours after having unprotected intercourse, could halve the country's number of unintended pregnancies and abortions.

Social conservatives have voiced concerns that Plan B is tantamount to an abortion pill, while others fear greater access to it will promote promiscuity.

Two independent FDA panels voted overwhelmingly (23 to 4) to allow the change, finding that the move made sense and the drug seemed remarkably safe. But in a highly unusual move, the FDA leadership overruled its own panels. The agency's director said more information was needed to ensure the drug's safety in young teens. Now, more than seven months after the drug maker agreed to restrict non-prescription sales to those over 16, no decision has been made.

One of the FDA's own panel experts, James Trussel at Princeton University, told the UCS that there were no age-related concerns. The issue, he said, is "nothing more than a made-up reason intended to sound plausible. From a scientific standpoint, it is complete and utter nonsense."

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an advocacy group, is suing the FDA over the delayed decision.

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