Politicized Science Costs Us All

After a 21-month delay, White House science adviser John Holdrenhas finally issued a four-page memo on scientific integrity in government. The guidelines demonstrate an intractable dichotomy between the needs of government and the needs of science. Therefore, it is time to erect a wall of separation between science and state.

Consider one of the cases that supposedly drove the need for these new guidelines – that of NASA scientist James Hansen. He and the previous administration had completely divergent views on what policies should be followed to fight global warming. This led to Mr. Hanson to complain about being gagged by NASA’s public relations machine, despite the fact that he managed to give more than 1,000 interviews during the Bush presidency.

What do the guidelines say about this situation? They say that scientists must be free to give interviews on the scientific and technological aspects of their work. That’s it. There is no freedom given to scientists to discuss policy aspects of their work, nor should there be. Scientific policy is for policymakers to decide. NASA is within its rights to keep Mr. Hansen from commenting on “cap-and-trade” while he is on its payroll. (For the record, he rightly opposes it, while this administration supports it.)

Here we get to the heart of the problem. The president’s memo in 2009 about science says, “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions” of his administration. Science cannot guide policy, because policy is about more than scientific knowledge. It also has moral, ethical and economic aspects. Thus, a Cabinet secretary should say to his advisers, “We were elected to do X. How do we do that in a way that is consistent with what we know about the science of the issue?”

For instance, if a president is elected in part because voters have ethical reservations about embryonic stem-cell research, it makes no sense for him to go ahead and fund it anyway. Likewise, government scientists need to provide scientific advice within the democratic political context.

However, our political process often ignores the will of the voters. That is because we have special interests institutionalized inside government, called agencies, that use a variety of ways to ensure that their views win out in intragovernmental debates. Recently, they have turned to using science to advance their views in order to gain more funding, more delegated responsibility and more power. It is easy for a government empire-builder to argue that “science demands” an increase in funding. For a good example, see the global-warming alarmists at NASA.

That is why the most worrisome aspects of the new memo are those about “developing government scientists’ careers,” by allowing them to take over the editorships of scientific journals. Those journals should oppose having government scientists run them if they want to maintain their independence.

Indeed, real scientific integrity demands that government scientists avoid taking such positions of power. As President Eisenhower rightly said in his farewell address to the nation, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations and the power of money is ever-present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

Science needs less interference from government and vice versa. If we do not heed Ike’s warning, scientific integrity will suffer.