Integrity of Science

This morning, hotel guests across the country this morning woke up to a chronicle of the divide between science and poltics in USA Today’s “Science vs. politics gets down and dirty.” There’s no need to hit the complimentary continental breakfast for a second cup of coffee when your morning news starts

The relationship (between the Bush administration and the nation’s scientific community) hit a new low last month when Richard Carmona, surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, lashed out at his former colleagues in testimony before a House committee.

Normally, I’d think the nation’s most circulated paper covering attacks on science integrity is a good thing. Unfortunately, throughout the article author Dan Vergano consistently confuses political interference and political considerations.

The difference is huge. Consider, for instance, comparisons from the accompanying text box titled “Where the Lines Are Drawn”:

Stem cell research: In August 2001, the president announced that federal money would be granted for research only on human embryonic stem cell lines already in existence. Bush has twice vetoed attempts by Congress to overturn his policy and expand federal spending on such research.

Global warming: In 2005, leaked documents revealed that the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a former oil industry lawyer, had altered climate reports to soften scientific findings showing that fossil-fuel use and deforestation triggered global warming.

In the former example, scientific recommendations were outweighed by other political considerations. The latter example is fundamentally different: the science itself was compromised. Vergano equates these two very different actions — the administration’s not following scientific recommendations, and interference with the scientific process — throughout this article. He does not differentiate between the two.

“Science has become very powerful as a symbol and everyone who has a case to make, or argument to win, tries to recruit science on their side,” (White House science adviser John) Marburger says. “Issues that might not have been labeled as ‘science-related’ controversies in the past are now called science-related.”

Contrast that with

A Fish and Wildlife Service inspector general’s report last month revealed how a political appointee altered scientific reports on endangered species in ways that limited protected habitats, and released internal reports to real estate industry lawyers in violation of federal regulations. Agency director H. Dale Hall called the actions “a blemish” on its scientific integrity.

Vergano should not be comparing the two. Whether or not this administration has followed scientific advice is substantially different than whether or not it distorted the process. By conflating the two, Vergano does a disservice to his readers, and to scientists in particular.