A while back I blogged about an idea floated by Morton Kondracke: That George W. Bush should try to become the “science” president by emphasizing, in his State of the Union speech, themes of global scientific competitiveness and the need to ensure that the good old USA is leading the pack. Well, it now seems official: According to the Boston Globe, in his speech tonight Bush plans to highlight Norman Augustine, a former Lockheed Martin CEO who “last year led a congressionally mandated National Academies team that issued a report warning that America is ‘on a losing path’ in the global marketplace.” Why are we falling behind? If you believe the NAS, it’s because of inadequate scientific and mathematical training for our high school students, not enough funding of basic scientific research, etc etc.
As I said previously, I’m glad that Bush is (apparently) planning on supporting more scientific research and better scientific education. Bravo. But the president is not exactly a credible messenger on matters of science, and this strategic repositioning does not do away with his vulnerability on the topic. Let us not forget that the president himself has misled the country about stem cell research and endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design” alongside evolution in high schools. The latter is especially troubling in that it undermines science education, which is an area where you’d think we’d want to be improving if we are to keep pace with other technologically advanced nations.
Moreover, Bush has shown shoddy scientific leadership. He has presided over an administration that’s demonstrated a systematic habit of doctoring scientific information, putting out misinformation, tilting scientific advisory panels, and suppressing the honest opinions of government scientists (aka James Hansen). Indeed, the timing of the new Hansen revelations couldn’t be better in terms of undermining the new “pro-science” message that will be coming from the administration. If Bush cares so much about science, why doesn’t he show it by telling the NASA PR team to lay off the nation’s most famous climate scientist?
Finally, I believe that Bush is about as credible on science as Newt Gingrich was. Gingrich, you will recall, is big booster of scientific research as a way of increasing technological innovation and economic growth. But at the same time, while running Congress, Gingrich showed little appreciation for quality scientific advice, presiding over the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment and rampant politicization of science in the new Republican Congress.
Indeed, this would seem a common theme with many conservative Republicans: They think science is great, except when its results conflict with the pet interests of some particular constituency. But if you sell out scientific knowledge too frequently for political gain, people are going to question your sincerity the next time you try to explain how important science is to the nation. That’s Bush’s conundrum, and I frankly don’t see how he’s going to find a convincing way out of it.
CLARIFICATION: Reading over this post again, I realize that by saying “It’s Official,” I’m implying that I know what’s going to be in the president’s speech. I didn’t mean to claim such clairvoyance. This post is based on the reporting of the Boston Globe, which said it was “expected” that Bush would highlight Augustine tonight. I certainly don’t know any more than the Globe does….