Wow, seems like I’ve had a lot of church and state related issues lately. Anyway, there’s a really good story out of the U.K. by the folks at Guardian Unlimited—The battle for American science that talks about how creationists, pro-lifers and conservatives are increasingly a threat to research and science education here in the States.
Some other signs: if you were contemplating an abortion and were worried about the rumour that it might increase your risk of breast cancer, you might visit the website of the government-funded National Cancer Institute to read their factsheet, which noted that most scientists doubt a link. Or, at least, you might have done so until June last year, when the page, criticised by some Republicans in Congress, simply vanished. (A replacement page was posted last month.) Or maybe you were an Aids activist, elated by the president’s unexpected (and genuinely revolutionary) announcement in the State of the Union address of $15bn (9.7bn) in funding for fighting the epidemic worldwide – and then surprised to find that only around 10% was destined for the Global Aids Fund, while the rest would be funnelled through US agencies, where it is more likely to be accessible to American abstinence-only groups campaigning against condoms.
Welcome to the new battlegrounds of American science. No conspiracy, nor even one political agenda, links the incidents above. But US scientists say they are indicative of a new climate that has emerged under the Bush administration: one driven partly by close relationships with big business, but just as much by a fiercely moral approach to the business of science. The approach is not exclusively religious, nor exclusively rightwing, but is spreading worry as never before through the nation’s laboratories and lecture halls.
The worry is spreading farther than that. Those of us who recognize these new attempts to legitimize already discredited ideas for what they are are also worried.
The two men inside the Bush administration who have had the most to do with this shift in approach are about as different from each other in style as it is possible to imagine – except, perhaps, in their avoidance of the media spotlight. One is Karl Rove, the president’s senior political aide, a master tactician who has been Bush’s main strategist since his earliest days campaigning for the governorship of Texas. (He does not seem overly bothered by scruples: in one campaign, for another politician, he claimed to have discovered a bug in his office on the day of a major debate. The opponent, tarnished by the insinuation of dirty tricks, lost the race, but the ensuing police investigation found nothing.) His importance should not be understated. “If Karl Rove did not exist, George Bush would not be president of the United States,” the liberal columnist EJ Dionne wrote bluntly this month.
Some saw Rove’s influence at play when John Marburger, Bush’s new science advisor, was informed that the role would no longer be a cabinet position. The White House had decided that “they don’t need that level of scientific input,” Allan Bromley, the first President Bush’s science advisor, said glumly at the time.
This explains a lot. I hadn’t been aware that the Bush administration had eliminated the cabinet position of science advisor. I was under the presumption they had just filled the position with another overly-religious appointee similar to the current U.S. Secretary of Education.
The other man is Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The occupant of that role was always going to be a central figure in an administration as morality-driven as Bush’s. In Kass, the president found a paragon of good repute (a renowned ethicist at the University of Chicago, Kass exudes erudition) who nevertheless differed radically from the academic consensus on the issues his committee would be considering, such as euthanasia, human cloning and in-vitro fertilisation.
“It is rare to see a scientist who thinks that nascent human life has any dignity worth respecting whatsover,” he said last year, arguing that the scientific establishment “treat it as chopped liver”.
Rove’s alertness to Bush’s Christian-conservative voter base and Kass’s moral convictions proved a powerful combination when it came to one of the most radical science policy changes to emerge from the current White House: the clampdown on human cloning.
The Bush presidency was in its infancy when Rove identified cloning as a topic that needed to be tackled. The administration’s contempt for the issue was made transparent when he suggested introducing a bill into Congress that would ban all forms of cloning. Kass readily agreed: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings,” he has written, “not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.”
The temptation to just post the whole article here is overwhelming as it’s stuff that more people should be aware of. I’ve made off-hand comments about this country being headed toward a theocracy before and it’s getting to be less of a smart-ass comment and more of a worrying realization each time I make it. If you’re as concerned as I am then you should go read the rest of this article.