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No faith in science

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David Guston, associate director of science, policy and outcomes at Arizona State University, said the mix of politics and science is a necessary one that keeps research socially relevant. Conflicts have always arisen. Richard Nixon, for example, fired his presidential science advisers in 1973 after they spoke out publicly against his plans for a supersonic transport program.

Prof. Guston said he is not convinced Mr. Bush is any more anti-science than previous presidents. Rather, he said, Mr. Bush's style of "governance and the application of power" clashes with scientific culture.

He cited recent published accounts that paint the President as a man whose faith imbues him with unflinching certainty in setting policy -- despite doubts others may cast his way.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group based in Washington, described the Bush administration as a sophisticated machine able to secure the results it is after.

"The Clinton administration was not well-organized," he said. "The Bush administration is highly organized and centralized. And in many instances, the directives are coming from political appointments right down to the field officers."

Mr. Ruch's organization, along with the UCS, conducted a survey last fall of scientists who work for the Fish and Wildlife Service and found that the experience of Florida panther biologist Andy Eller was not unique: One in five of the nearly 300 who responded said they had been asked to exclude or alter technical information in a scientific document.

In the past three months, two non-partisan entities have taken direct aim at the practices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Both the EPA inspector-general and the Government Accountability Office issued reports that found EPA staff received high-level instructions to distort its analysis of how to reduce mercury emissions from power plants.

As Ms. Schultz of the UCS explained, "EPA scientists were actually given the end policy result of how much mercury could be controlled from power plants -- and told to make the science justify the figures."

It is too early to gauge what impact the current conflict will have on American science, but there is little doubt it has accelerated a cultural shift in the scientific community. Scientists are stepping down from their ivory towers to defend their work and, more significantly, to win public support.

In California, scientists have done an end-run around the President's restrictive funding policies on stem-cell research, winning a statewide ballot last fall to raise $3-billion for the cause with a public bond-offering.

In December, the UCS bypassed Washington and wrote directly to Prime Minister Paul Martin, warning the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence program was based on flawed science and a dubious plan to weaponize space.

In March, Rick Piltz, a former senior associate with the federal Climate Change Science Program, resigned from his job of 10 years. He said he wanted to contribute "to public understanding of the problem of what happens when scientific assessments of climate change are misused in the political arena."

Mr. Piltz alleged in an interview that the government has "essentially suppressed the use of the most substantial scientific assessment undertaken by the program in its 15-year history."

The administration was displeased with its findings, he alleged, so that the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change compiled by hundreds of U.S. scientists was sent "into a black hole," playing no role in strategy planning or reports to Congress.

Dr. Leshner, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, believes firmly that scientists must expand their public role: "When all of this politics, ideology and moralizing started, everybody in the scientific community's initial reaction was to lament the situation. But whining doesn't help.

"What I believe, and what many of my colleagues believe, is that you need to go out to people where they are, not where we are."

That means talking to reporters "as much as we can," he said, and writing commentaries in the mass media.

"It's about finding out what [the public's] concerns are and trying to find common ground," Dr. Leshner said. "We need to change our strategy and engage with the public."

And that means scientists mounting a political campaign of their own. Dr. Leshner said the AAAS now has an elaborate plan to develop "a cadre of ambassadors of science," to fan out across the country and visit "religious groups, churches, synagogues, mosques, Boys' and Girls' Clubs, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs . . . to go to where the people are, listen to what they are thinking about . . . let them help shape the research agenda.

"The truth is," he said, "they're paying for this [research]. They ought to get something out of it."

Carolyn Abraham, The Globe and Mail's medical reporter, was recently nominated for a National Newspaper Award in feature writing.

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