Chris Mooney takes President Bush to task over his dismal science policies.
Out of the bushes
For US scientists, George W Bush's presidency has been a disaster. But there's hope on the horizon, says Chris Mooney
* Guardian Unlimited
* Wednesday August 8 2007
The presidency of George W Bush is waning and laming. The time has come to think about the future and when it comes to policies for US science and to the use of science in US policy, let's put it bluntly, pretty much anything will be an improvement.
Over the past seven years, Mr Bush has shown a disturbing unwillingness to change his mind or admit to errors of fact or judgment. So we are probably safe in assuming he will not significantly alter course on the leading science policy topics of the day - embryonic stem cell research and global warming.
In each case, Mr Bush made a policy decision back in 2001 based upon false, incomplete, or misleading information and has since fought a rearguard action to prevent either acknowledging these deceptions or their obvious implication - that the 2001 policies should be reversed.
Take embryonic stem cell research. Mr Bush claimed in 2001 that he would allow significant federally funded research to go forward on "more than 60" genetically diverse available lines. Only a third as many actually existed and there were various problems with them, including a marked lack of said genetic diversity. This meant that Mr Bush's policy didn't even make sense on its own terms. Supposedly a "compromise," it proved little more than a sham and were it not for 9/11 and the dramatic shift in US priorities that understandably followed, this fact would have been widely exposed far sooner.
It has come out in recent years, however, and even the Bush-appointed director of the National Institutes of Health, America's chief biomedical research agency, now admits that the stem cell policy needs to be broadened to encourage more science.
Hordes of Republicans support a similar expansion, giving stem cell reformers a majority in both houses of the US Congress. Mr Bush has already vetoed two bills they have sent him that would relax the current restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Mr Bush's failure on global warming is world famous. In early 2001, he pronounced climate science "incomplete" and signalled that the US would not participate in the Kyoto Protocol. A few months later, the US National Academy of Sciences - the country's leading independent scientific advisory body - delivered Mr Bush a report showing that the science pointed strongly to the fact that human activities are causing the current warming trend. Mr Bush proceeded to misrepresent the academy's report and in subsequent years has only supported "voluntary" measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which of course haven't worked.
Now, in the absence of significant action from Washington, major US states with Republican governors - Arnold Schwarzenegger's California and Charlie Crist's Florida - are moving to implement dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Once again, more thoughtful and flexible members of Mr Bush's own party are making him look bad.
Indeed, even the fossil fuel companies that we tend to think of as Mr Bush's allies are becoming less and less of an impediment to meaningful greenhouse gas policies. An increasing number of these companies want regulation to go forward so that they can operate in a predictable business environment. The smartest corporations are planning ahead, hoping to seize the new financial opportunities that will exist in a post-carbon world.
On both stem cells and climate change, Mr Bush simply remains stuck in the past - inflexible and unchanging. The world is passing him by. Barring the unlikely election of a Christian conservative Republican in the next US election - someone like Kansas Senator Sam Brownback who doesn't accept the theory of evolution - we can expect either a middle-of-the-road Republican or a Democratic president to take a very different line than Mr Bush on both of these subjects.
The unreasonable stem cell restrictions will vanish quickly. Once they topple we can also expect a considerable increase beyond the $US37-38m (£17.5-18.5m) currently being spent annually by the US government to research human embryonic stem cells. In comparison, the total NIH annual research budget is over $28bn.
The global warming issue, in contrast, will be resolved only slowly, assuming it's not already too late. But at least at last there will be progress. On both fronts Mr Bush's presidency will be remembered as a mountainous roadblock, not a mere speed bump, but the United States will eventually show its better character.
Still, there will been irrevocable consequences from Mr Bush's behaviour far beyond the broad alienation of the nation's scientific community as a result of the president's decisions, as well as his cavalier treatment of scientific information.
For example, it seems scarcely disputable that the advancement of embryonic stem cell science has been delayed and hampered. We can't point to specific cures for specific diseases that we lack because of Mr Bush - it's not that simple. But a reasonable assumption is that Mr Bush has set back US biomedical research considerably and allowed other enterprising nations to surge into the void.
On global warming, Mr Bush has slowed down the whole world. US intransigence and go-it-alone behaviour have thwarted the achievement of a truly international treaty to cap greenhouse gas emissions. As a consequence, we have continued to emit unchecked and so have continued to increase atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, in the process making the global warming problem much harder to fix than it was when Mr Bush came into office.
Once again, because of scientific uncertainty, we don't know yet just how badly Mr Bush has screwed the planet on this front. But along with the Iraq war, it may well be his most damning legacy.
And of course, the unsolved stem cell and climate issues merely represent the two best known of Mr Bush's science policy fiascos. On issues ranging from the regulation of mercury emissions from power plants to the availability of emergency contraception, the Bush administration has similarly undermined the scientific basis of the government regulatory process and set in place nonsensical, contorted policies.
All of the Bush administration's science actions, taken together, have led to a depressing morale deficit among scientists employed by the US government, who have repeatedly seen their work trashed, suppressed or ignored.
The broadest way of stating the problem is that throughout his presidency, Mr Bush has let politics rule everything and left virtually nothing to dispassionate analysis. Preconceptions, rather than critical thinking, have driven policy. Indeed, the US federal government is staffed with legions of political appointees who think in raw political terms, often with a disregard for the long-standing professionalism of the agencies they find themselves lording it over. As a consequence, the US government has become a place where loyalty and the rewarding of prior supporters wins out again and again over careful analysis and expert judgment.
So while the next president will have a pretty rough time making such a hash of things, we need a broad realignment of the US government as well to ensure these kinds of problems don't recur. The goal must be to achieve a respectful distance between political people in government and those charged with doing a job that requires a certain kind of expert knowledge. That's a line that's been crossed all too often of late in American life and government to the point where science itself, under Mr Bush, became fully political.
With the world watching, in 2009 we'll be working to step back from the abyss.
Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of The Republican War on Science (2005) and the newly released Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming.