The Science Gap

jbone at jbone at
Wed Oct 22 14:38:24 PDT 2003 comment.

No, wait, I can't resist:  all those $billions to not kill a tin-pot  
dictator that wasn't a threat to this country and who failed to kill  
our current Glorious Leader's daddy a decade ago are *surely*  
better-spent than funding this kind of ivory-tower airy-fairy stuff...



The science gap

In 1995, a budget-cutting Republican Congress fired its science advisers
for being too politicized and too slow. In an age of bioterror, climate
change, and high-tech weaponry, we need them back.

By Chris Mooney, 10/5/2003

TWO YEARS AGO, as anthrax-laced letters arrived in Congress and at New
York media offices, reliable scientific information was in short supply.
With jittery Washingtonians popping Cipro and refusing to open the mail,
the confusion among leading policy makers only worsened the general
unease. In an embarrassing flub, Health and Human Services Secretary
Tommy Thompson suggested that the nation's first anthrax victim may have
fallen ill through drinking from a stream.

The press and members of Congress needed better scientific analysis --
and they found it, among other places, in two reports on weapons of mass
destruction published in 1993 by the congressional Office of Technology
Assessment (OTA). One report contained key facts about the number of
spores required to produce inhalation anthrax. The other report
estimated that given the proper weather conditions, the release of 100
kilograms of anthrax from a plane upwind of Washington could kill more
people than a hydrogen bomb.

Faced with America's first major bioterrorism attack, why was Congress
dusting off decade-old reports? OTA hadn't produced anything more recent
because the agency, once dubbed Congress's "defense against the dumb,"
no longer existed. Soon after the "Gingrich revolution" of 1994 -- in a
move that calls to mind current complaints over the Bush
administration's approach to scientific advice -- incoming congressional
Republicans dismantled their scientific advisory office. They denounced
OTA for being too slow and (some added) suspect in its political
orientation. Yet perhaps becauseOTA took its time, its exactingly
prepared and heavily reviewed reports have aged very well.

OTA's 23-year body of work comprises some 750 reports and assessments on
subjects ranging from acid rain to climate change to the use of
polygraphs. "In the areas where I have expertise, I still look to a
number of OTA reports as kind of being the state of the art," says Roger
Pielke Jr., who studies climate change and space policy and heads the
University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy

In fact, some scientists are clamoring for OTA's return. The authors of
a new anthology, "Science and Technology Advice for Congress" (Resources
for the Future), outline a range of options for improving the science
savvy of elected representatives, from simply resurrecting OTA to
creating a similar organ in the General Accounting Office or
Congressional Research Service. They also suggest increasing the role of
the well-respected but undeniably slow-paced National Academy of

Meanwhile, New Jersey's Democratic congressman Rush Holt, who happens to
be a physicist, has introduced a bill to bring the OTA back. But so far,
Holt says, "the Republicans have dug in their heels." John Feehery, a
spokesman for House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert, confirms that the party
has little interest in Holt's efforts. "In `95, when we took over," says
Feehery, "we made a decision that that branch of government was not
producing. There's no reason to think that it will start producing if it
is re-created."

The case for OTA's reincarnation is fairly straightforward. When
Congress debates the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto treaty
to combat global warming or its explanation of the great blackout of
2003, partisan voices on all sides appeal to the authority of science.
But what does the best science tell us? Members of Congress rarely have
the ability or the time to inform themselves about technical issues.
After the House of Representatives voted 265-162 to ban all cloning of
human cells in 2001, Representative Peter Deutsch, a Florida Democrat,
commented, "This is the least informed collectively that the 435 members
of this body have ever been on any issue."

. . .

OTA was created in 1972, at a time of considerable public concern over
the dangers of pollution, nuclear energy, and other technologies.
Partisan tensions hobbled the office from the outset. Because Senator
Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts had been OTA's chief sponsor, many on
the right suspected the office of being a "happy hunting ground of
Kennedy apparatchiks" and "liberal technocrats," as William Safire wrote
in The New York Times in 1977.

Under the leadership of physicist Jack Gibbons, who ran OTA from 1979 to
1993, the office pursued a strategy of studied political neutrality,
notes political scientist Bruce Bimber in his 1996 study of OTA, "The
Politics of Expertise in Congress." This approach gradually won the
support of key Republican allies. Still, when Ronald Reagan took office,
the new administration endorsed "Fat City," a 1980 book by conservative
journalist Donald Lambro that identified OTA as one of Washington's many
wasteful programs.

But where OTA really crossed the Reagan administration was over the
Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or "Star Wars." In a 1983 speech,
the president called for a research and development program to determine
ways of protecting the United States from nuclear missiles, with an
emphasis on space-based laser technology. The Pentagon quickly got to
work studying the feasibility of so-called ballistic missile defense

But in a 1984 study authored by Ashton Carter, now a professor at
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, OTA warned that "a perfect or
near-perfect defense" was an illusory goal that "should not serve as the
basis of public expectation or national policy about ballistic missile
defense." The report enraged the Pentagon, which asked to have it
withdrawn. Instead, an OTA expert review confirmed the study's

Still, few of OTA's reports made enemies the way the "Star Wars" studies
did. Gibbons, who directed the office until becoming the Clinton
administration's science adviser in 1993, insisted that each study
provide Congress with a range of well-informed policy options to choose
from. "OTA produced a body of scientific information from which, then,
the politics could be argued," says Rosina Bierbaum, who headed OTA's
climate-change project in the 1980s and now serves as dean of the
University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment.
"And now, it doesn't seem to me like there's any consensus body of
information that the Congress accepts."

Before it was shuttered, OTA had come to be regarded by those who knew
it well as a uniquely successful agency. "How to Revolutionize
Washington with 140 People," read a lengthy 1989 Washington Monthly
article that celebrated the clarity and surprising humanism of the OTA's
reports. This flavor seems attributable to Gibbons, a folksy
administrator who ran OTA more like a university and was prone to
quoting the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem "Huntsman, What Quarry?", which
reads in part, "Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill/Is daily spun, but
there exists no loom/To weave it into fabric." For Gibbons, OTA's
mission was to weave what scientists know into a fabric that policy
makers could use.

But the Republicans who swept into Congress in 1994 saw things
differently. OTA became a "sacrificial victim," says Henry Kelly,
president of the Federation of American Scientists, because the new
Congress wanted to show its willingness to make budget cuts in its own

According to Newt Gingrich's current spokesman Rick Tyler, the
then-House Speaker also felt the OTA's analyses tilted to the left: "In
some cases it was politicized work." Republican congressman Amo Houghton
of New York nonetheless led an almost-successful fight to save the
agency under the slogan "You don't cut the future." Today, Houghton says
that cutting the agency was "dumb." He adds, "It was not that much
money, and they were just looking for sort of symbolic targets."

. . .

Those hoping to revive OTA face a political bind. Most advocates believe
the most sensible option would be to create a new office modeled closely
on its predecessor. But Michigan congressman Vernon Ehlers, another
pro-OTA Republican and a physicist, says that as long as his party
retains control of Congress, "reconstructing OTA as it was has zero
chance of becoming law."

This should not come as a surprise. In November 2001, the Chronicle of
Higher Education ran a lengthy article on "the waning influence of
scientists on national policy." The Chronicle cited the already dramatic
rifts between the Bush administration and the majority of scientists on
stem cells, climate change, and missile defense. The article did not
note, however, that Bush's science adviser, physicist John Marburger,
had by then been demoted from the position of "assistant to the
president" -- a title that Bush's father first bestowed upon his own
science adviser -- or that the agency Marburger headed, the Office of
Science and Technology Policy, was moved out of the White House's
executive office building shortly after 9/11. (OSTP spokeswoman Kathryn
Harrington maintains that this does not represent a decrease in the
office's influence.)

In the past year, major newspapers have reported on the politicization
of the scientific advisory panels appointed by the executive branch in
areas ranging from reproductive health to the environment. In the
journal Science, editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy responded with an
editorial titled "An Epidemic of Politics." In August, Democratic
congressman Henry Waxman released a report listing alleged abuses of the
scientific process and noting the "unprecedented criticism from the
scientific community." The Bush administration, it concluded, "has
repeatedly suppressed, distorted, or obstructed science to suit
political and ideological goals."

Waxman's colleague Rush Holt calls the report "a polemic," but notes
that it nevertheless contains "some striking examples of the misuse of
science, and what might almost be taken as an anti-scientific attitude
in some quarters of this administration."

Of course, the Bush administration hardly claims to be acting
anti-scientifically; it simply defines science with reference to its own
experts. John Graham, who runs the Bush administration's Office of
Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and
Budget, is well-known for his belief that government regulations should
be subjected to a stringent form of cost-benefit analysis. Although it
has become a lightning rod for some environmental advocates, his
approach has at least some admirers across the political spectrum.

In any case, debates on issues from global warming to stem cells might
not divide so predictably along partisan lines if an authoritative
agency once again offered its analyses or even suggested new policies. A
new OTA would let legislators make up their minds on the basis of an
accurate picture of the full state of scientific knowledge. Perhaps
that's why the Federation of American Scientists' Henry Kelly says of
bringing back OTA, "The necessity is so overwhelming that I would say
over the long term, it will certainly happen."

Chris Mooney, a freelance writer living in Palo Alto, is writing a book
about the politics of science in the Bush administration.

(c) Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

(c) Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company 

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