Science in the Presidential Elections

Last Tuesday, two speakers presented Does Science Policy Matter in the 2004 Election? in McConomy Auditorium. Harold Varmus, the 1989 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, and Maxine Singer, President Emeritus of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, delivered speeches regarding the relationship between government and the scientific community, especially as it relates to public policy.
?The government is increasingly responsible for providing for research,? said Varmus, explaining that since World War II, government funding and support has been vital to scientific and technological progress. The pursuit of science, he said, has usually enjoyed bipartisan support. He pointed out, though, that in this election it has become more of a dividing issue.
According to Varmus, President Bush?s tax policy has allowed a tax cut at the expense of the scientific community, which has seen drops in federal funding. As a result, there is less incentive for intelligent young people, both American and foreign, to seek careers in science.
Varmus went on to criticize the Bush administration?s formation of policy that contradicts the scientific method, observing that the steps to declaring war on Iraq were taken despite a lack of evidence. ?As scientists, we appreciate the evaluation of evidence,? Varmus said.
Varmus also sternly criticized the current administration for its effect on the strength of American science. Varmus claimed that President Bush and his administration have downgraded the importance of scientific advising in crafting policy. Generally, the President relies on the best possible information from leading scientists; Varmus accused the Bush administration of using facts that are purposely distorted to support Bush?s agenda.
For example, the FDA recently disapproved the sale of the controversial ?Plan B? emergency contraceptive pill over the counter, despite its being endorsed by an advisory committee of scientists. Such practices do not ?honor the traditional value of the peer review policies which have been such a valuable influence to American science,? said Varmus. He continued this point by condemning Bush?s use of religion, not science, as his principal foundation for policy-making.
Maxine Singer, who spoke second, elaborated by citing Bush?s stalwart endorsement of abstinence education as opposed to instruction in contraceptive practices. She observed that the administration is openly against the use of condoms. ?If there?s a second Bush term, we?re going to see more action against contraceptive devices and contraceptive means,? she said. She expressed concern that the government?s aversion to contraceptive policy could have grave consequences in the fight against the spread of AIDS, especially in Africa.
These issues are of serious concern for all Americans, according to Carnegie Mellon professor Jon Peha: ?If the Administration ignores what scientists and engineers at places like CMU know about health care, energy, the environment, or homeland security, everyone is affected ? not just those involved with science.?
Singer expressed concern for the future of scientific innovation. President Bush, she said, has left much of the burden of research and innovation on private enterprises, when it is traditionally the government?s job to support research. Singer endorsed Democratic candidate John Kerry, citing his balanced approach to basic and applied research, funded by the federal government.
Singer?s speech also focused on the environment, lauding Kerry?s grade of 96 percent by the League of Conservation Voters, a non-partisan group that rates politicians? environmental policy. Singer noted that President Bush received a failing grade.
She also condemned Bush?s attempts to build a bunker-busting atomic bomb. The United States has not sought to create new nuclear weapons for decades, she said, and given the United States? new foreign policy of striking preemptively, this new atomic campaign encourages, rather than deters, hostile nations? creating their own nuclear weapons. ?I have never been so concerned about the direction of our country,? said Singer.
When asked whether he fears reprisals for his vehement condemnation of the Bush administration, Varmus responded, ?We live in what we used to consider an enlightened democracy.? He claimed the administration uses scare tactics and sensationalism to suppress opposition and legitimate inquiry. ?The nation cannot thrive with an administration that does not have a strong commitment, a true commitment, to science and technology,? he said.