Commentary

Yawn - It’s Just Political Scientists

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 9, 2004.
Face it: There are only about 55 repeating news stories. One speaks of unrest in Haiti. Another claims that people high up in the federal government, maybe even at the White House, are in the business of distorting scientific research.

Ho-hum. Haiti will be a mess, and politicians will mess with science. It isn’t surprising. It’s inevitable.

That’s why I’m surprised that a statement released last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), claiming that the Bush administration is distorting science, mainly global warming science, got any press play. Although several of the signees were scientists not in the UCS, the group itself is a left-wing lobbying group best known for being greatly exercised about global warming from fossil fuels and destroying the alternative, nuclear power, at the same time.

The UCS is angry that the Bush administration has pulled a climate assessment report. That report was pulled together mainly by Clinton-era hacks. Now Bush-era hacks have booted it. To the victor goes the delete key, OK?

Politics distorts science, particularly environmental science, because 99.99 percent of those sciences’ financial support comes from the federal government. Scientists distort science because their careers depend on the money they bring to their university or their laboratory. Both the employees of the academy, and the academy itself, must support a political process that results in the exaggeration of threats. In competition for a finite federal outlay, scientists present their particular issues (global warming, cancer, AIDS) in the most urgent light possible, threatening societal ruin if their work isn’t funded.

Eventually, this leads to bad policies, such as proposals to reduce emissions of atmospheric carbon dioxide that will cost a lot of money and have no detectable effect on climate. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has just such a bill about to go for a floor vote this spring. All these things - distortion, exaggeration, and bad policies - are inevitable as long as scientists remain wards of the government, which almost all of us (this author included) are.

One of the first questions a faculty dean asks at promotion time is: “Have you been successful in obtaining federal funding?” Successful competition in this environment is viewed as a badge of respect, however distorted the playing field. Further, no scientist can publish the amount of research required for promotion without a million or so dollars in government support.

The Bush administration recognizes this problem, and when it did something about it, scientists and their lobbies screamed. But science is distorted in every administration, one way or another, as surely as every administration settles a coup in Haiti.

Patrick J. Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.