Where’s the Science?

The administration is rushing into action before appointing the science and technology officials who should be participating in critical decisions.

The Bush administration recently decided not to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide in spite of the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has become increasingly firm in its view that the release of carbon dioxide by human activities is contributing to climate warming. A furor is rising over the presence of StarLink corn, a genetically engineered variety that has been approved for animal but not human consumption, in foods such as tortillas. As a second round of rolling blackouts swept across California in mid-March, debates raged about the relative advantages of electricity generating technologies and the energy efficiency of a wide range of products and activities. The Pentagon is waiting for a decision on the readiness of the technology necessary for a missile defense system. The rapid success of efforts to map the human genome has opened a Pandora’s box of questions about how this growing knowledge can and should be used. In times such as these, it would be reassuring to know that the administration’s decisions were guided by the best scientific advice.

The disturbing reality is that the administration has made almost no progress toward appointing senior science and technology officials. The National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy recently convened a panel of former senior government S&T officials, including five former presidential science advisors, to make recommendations for improving the appointment process. The panel determined that the incoming administration should aim to complete 80-90 percent of the appointments within 4 months, and it listed the 50 most important S&T positions. More than 4 months have passed since the election, and no one has been confirmed for any of these positions. One person has been nominated for a position, and five people have been named as potential nominees.

Yes, it’s still a very young administration, and it was hampered by the election delay. Yes, after making a quick start, the appointment process has slowed to a Clintonesque pace in all areas, not just science and technology. Well, that’s not entirely true. One exception is judicial appointments, which are moving ahead at a breakneck pace, because Republicans realize that the death of 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond could give the Democrats a majority in the Senate and a veto on judicial appointments. Still, one cannot help but ask where the administration is getting expert scientific and technological advice.

Early in the administration there were rumors of possible candidates for the position of science advisor, but no one was ever mentioned officially. With April looming, there are not even rumors. It will take time to fill all the S&T positions in the White House and the agencies, but in the meantime having at least one person in the White House with an understanding of science and connections to the research community would make an enormous difference. When an important decision was made, it would be possible to direct questions to someone who could explain what understanding of the relevant science provided the foundation for the decision.

The carbon dioxide episode is a perfect example. The question is not whether Bush changed his position from the campaign. He had very little to say about energy policy before the election, but he made it clear that he opposed the Kyoto Protocol, which called for tight controls on U.S. carbon emissions, and he emphasized the need to increase U.S. oil production. The important question is how does he explain his position. Does he simply disagree with the IPCC analysis? Does he have an alternative view of current climate trends? Or is it his assessment of the potential of the competing energy technologies? Perhaps it’s his take on the reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas. We want to believe that it’s something more than the political muscle of the coal industry.

The problem is that he can make this decision without any apparent staff expertise in the relevant scientific and technological disciplines and that he can present it to the public without even the pretense that he has a scientific foundation for his policies. Specific government policies do not flow directly from the IPCC findings. Science is only one of many considerations that must must be taken into account, and people who accept the IPCC consensus findings can disagree strongly in their policy prescriptions. What is most troubling about the Bush administration is that it seems willing to dispense with the need for a scientific foundation for its policies.

As I try to finish this, news arrives about the decision to postpone the implementation of standards on arsenic levels in drinking water. At least the purported reason is that more study is needed. No mention is made, however, of the National Research Council study of arsenic that was completed just last year and found compelling evidence of cancer risk from arsenic in drinking water and recommended strongly that current standards be tightened. One could make a case that the study did not justify the specific standard proposed by the Clinton administration, but that would require having an administration official who could talk knowledgeably about the science represented in the study.

As the articles in this issue make clear, the administration is already dealing with a number of questions in which science and technology are critical. We hope that our new political leaders will benefit from reading an overview of what’s happening in science policy, a bipartisan strategy for strengthening K-12 education, a detailed analysis of energy options, a practical look at electricity regulation, an assessment of fresh approaches to environmental regulation, an update on what brain science can tell us about addiction, and a consideration of the implications of proceeding with ballistic missile defense. But the administration needs much more. It needs to have a trusted core of senior officials with scientific knowledge and research experience who can help the president understand the difficult decisions he must make, who can nurture the U.S. research enterprise, and who can help citizens understand the scientific foundation of important U.S. policies. It’s past time for the Bush administration to get started.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Where’s the Science?” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 3 (Spring 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring 2001