Politics trumps science


Lawrence Krauss

The recent stunning photographs of the neonatal universe provided by the Hub ble space telescope may represent the last hurrah for that remarkable instrument. Its imminent demise has been scheduled by NASA as part of a revamped program to concentrate on shuttle missions to the international space station in preparation for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

Much of the astronomical community has been up in arms over this decision, which sets aside a planned upgrade that has already been paid for and that would prolong the active life of the telescope into the next decade, until the James Webb telescope is launched.

It is hard to take seriously the argument that NASA is concerned about safety. It is difficult to imagine that if NASA truly felt the shuttles were unsafe, it would schedule 25 future missions to service the space station. NASA's actions seem guided by political imperatives, not scientific ones.

Science and politics have always had, at best, an uneasy relationship. During the French Revolution, a judge turned down the renowned chemist Antoine Lavoisier's request to finish one last important experiment on oxygen before he was executed. The judge is reputed to have said: "The new republic has no need of science."

While the current political situation in the United States is less extreme, these past few years have witnessed a frightening level of divergence between government and the scientific community.

Last month, the Ohio Board of Education voted to adopt a controversial lesson plan that has been criticized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Ohio Academy of Sciences for promoting the teaching of intelligent design creationism in place of an accurate scientific discussion of the current status of evolution. When confronted by complaints from scientists throughout the state, the vice president of the board was reported to have stated, in words oddly reminiscent of Lavoisier's judge, that these scientists were merely wasting everyone's time, that what they do is irrelevant, and that "they think they know everything."

Also last month, President George W. Bush removed two distinguished academics who disagreed with his positions from the ethics panel he convened to examine stem cell research. Following this dismissal, complaints have surfaced that dissenting scientific opinions on the panel have been stifled.

Recently, a group of 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates, 19 National Medal of Science winners and advisors of the past four presidents, as well as myself, signed a letter condemning the politicization of science by the Bush administration. Incidents have been reported ranging from the censorship of scientific data associated with global warming and environmental protection, to the stacking of government scientific advisory panels with poorly credentialed lobbyists. All of this suggests a blatant disregard for scientific integrity.

Often when this administration disagrees with the results of scientific studies, it simply chooses to redefine the results. By the end of the year, the Bush administration will declare, by fiat, a new missile defense system being deployed in Alaska as "operational," despite the fact that it has failed in more than 40 percent of the tests it has been subjected to thus far. This system costs $10 billion this year, and $55 billion over the next six years.

For better or worse, we live in a technological society, and almost all important issues of public policy have a scientific component. In the words of the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush:

"Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry, and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now, more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance."

The rate at which a ball falls to the ground is not a Democratic or Republican notion. The results of scientific investigations should not be withheld from our children. Nor should science be divorced from the development of sound public policy, independent of politics. If science is treated as the enemy, ultimately everyone in our democracy suffers - as the fervent revolutionaries who turned a blind eye to Lavoisier's experiments ultimately discovered.

Krauss is director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University.

© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission

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