In his last state of the union address, President Bush glossed over the seriousness of some of the most pressing problems facing our country, and suggested they could be solved with something that’s been in short supply during his tenure.
“Global climate change” got one brief mention, as something that the nation is committed to confronting with cleaner and more energy-efficient technology. Unacceptable rates of uninsurance and spiraling healthcare costs were obliquely referenced with a stated goal of “making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans.” Bush invoked technology as the cure for our energy and health care woes, and said this about the energy, medical, and physical sciences research that’s required:
• “To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology.”
• “We must trust in the innovative spirit of medical researchers and empower them to discover new treatments while respecting moral boundaries.”
• “To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow.”
In short, we’ve got to trust the scientists.
Bush’s appointees seem to have missed this memo. Over the past few years, reports of Bush administration interference with science have rolled in with an alarming frequency:
At NASA, a Bush appointee who lied on his resume tried to limit and shape Jim Hansen and other NASA scientists’ discussion of climate change with members of the media.
At NOAA, under an unevenly enforced 2004 media policy, public affairs officials denied media access to scientists whose work dealt with links between hurricanes and global warming.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, the head of HHS’s Office of Global Health Affairs challenged a World Health Organization report that linked junk food to obesity and tried to quash a global health report from U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona because it failed to promote the administration’s policy accomplishments. Plus, during his tenure, Carmona faced speaking and publishing restrictions on reports on stem cells, emergency contraception, and sex education.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, director Julie Gerberding prepared 14 pages of testimony on the health effects of global warming, and the White House chopped out 10 of those pages.
At the Interior Department, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks altered scientific field reports to minimize protections for endangered species (and passed confidential information to organizations that have challenged endangered species listings, too).
In these cases, Bush appointees evidently didn’t trust researchers or doctors enough to let them communicate their unedited views to government officials, media, or the public. (I’m not even getting into the many policy decisions – ranging from over-the-counter approval for an emergency contraceptive to California’s emission standards request — in which officials ignored scientists’ advice.)
Bush is right that it’s important to trust scientists as they work on pressing environmental and health challenges. Maybe if he’d followed this advice for the past seven years, our union’s environment and health would be in a less sorry state.