A Politically Incorrect Guide to Science

Monday, January 30, 2006

Science in the United States has become heavily politicized, largely because the federal government transformed itself from a government of limited and specified powers to an all-purpose caring agency. Once upon a time, it provided for the common defense and a common currency. Then the restraints gave way, like the New Orleans levees, and it took on any role that could be called compassionate. Soon it was awash in a flood of issues and missions, and it became less and less able to cope with any of them.

Science hopped on board. If the discovery of emergencies and crises entitled you to a share of federal largesse, scientists could play that game. They had the equipment, after all—the measuring devices, the radar, the thermometers, the satellite sensors.

A chicken in the Orkneys died of a mysterious ailment? A fowl epidemic might be heading our way! Seven people came down with a strange flu in Ho Chi Minh City? Call Lawrence Altman at the New York Times! Eight drops of mercury were found in a Washington, D.C., high school basement? More surveillance required!


The (Very) High Price of Science

As recently as 1989, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $7.9 billion. By 2005 it had almost quadrupled to $28.8 billion. In his odd but interesting book, Science, Money, and Politics, Daniel S. Greenberg, who for years published a newsletter about science and politics, said:

NIH was not a hard sell [in Congress]. Faith in the great scientific center of disease fighting was a non-ideological, bipartisan verity of Capitol Hill. Political support arose naturally, from fear and hope, but was also cultivated by the NIH management.

Greenberg tells the story of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a “standard, anti-Washington, budget-cutting conservative,” finding a lump under his arm and calling the National Cancer Institute. They told him to “come right out there.” It was diagnosed as a fatty deposit. Ever since, Hatch declared, he has been a big supporter of NIH, in tandem with liberal Democrat Henry Waxman of California.

(Greenberg’s book is odd because he first demonstrates the entanglement of science and politics and then criticizes scientists for not being political enough. Greenberg himself is a man of the Left.)

Scientists have followed in the teachers’ footsteps. Public education declined in quality even as the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on it sharply increased. Step by step, the teachers and their unions learned they could put their own welfare ahead of the students’. And get away with it. President Bush was played for a sucker by the education lobby when he called for “no child left behind.” For years, the decline in public education was construed as just another indicator that not enough money had been spent.

Science is heading down the same path. A problem is discerned, or invented, the government steps in, and then the problem seems to grow more serious even as more attention is paid to it. That suits many of the scientists just fine.

Leaf through Science magazine and you will see that the maintenance of government spending on science is perhaps its leading preoccupation. Budgets are a major topic, scrutinized week after week. A few recent headlines: “Tight Budgets Force Lab Layoffs,” “Bush Victory Leaves Scars—and Concerns about Funding,” “A Dangerous Signal to Science” (there was great concern in this editorial because the EPA and the National Science Foundation “actually had their funding reduced from FY 2004 levels”). Dozens of such articles are published every year.

Still, bigger government is not a particularly “scientific” response to any crisis. Rarely are problems “solved” that way. But government spending does help some people, including the recipients of grants and those who administer them.


You, Too, Can Have a Building Named After You

Flattery can work wonders, especially with prospective “donors.” NIH buildings are named after members of Congress who control the purse strings. The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center was named after the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee after he vowed to then–NIH director Harold Varmus that he would protect the agency from budget cuts. “We may fail, but if we fail we’re going to die with our boots on,” Hatfield vowed. The balanced budget amendment duly failed by one vote.

The John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center was named after the Illinois congressman who in 1995 became chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for NIH, the starting point for medical research appropriations. He led a delegation of scientists to meet with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to plead for favored treatment for the NIH budget, and when budget cutting loomed in 1996, he “telephoned ten university presidents and urged them to enlist the members of their boards of trustees in behalf of NIH.”

After Congressman Louis Stokes of Ohio retired in 1998, a $75 million building on the NIH campus was named the Louis Stokes Laboratory Building. One of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, Stokes was present at the dedication ceremony in 2001 and said that when Congressman Porter told him that the building would be named after him he was “absolutely surprised and stunned.” Until that moment he had “absolutely no idea what it would be like having a building bearing my name” on the campus “of the greatest biomedical research institution in the world.” Just think, he said, “from a little boy growing up in the projects in Cleveland to having a building named after you at the National Institutes of Health.”

Stokes’s “humanity” was praised. There was a jazz ensemble, and a pastor from Ebenezer Baptist Church blessed the event. But somehow the NIH news story failed to mention that before control of Congress shifted to Republican hands in 1995, Stokes had chaired the same appropriations subcommittee that Porter had taken over. Even so, the acting director of the NIH gave the game away when she said of Stokes: “His word was his bond—you could take it to the bank. And we did, many times.”

Younger members of the Black Caucus in attendance surely got the message—keep the money flowing and you too can have a building named after you. The National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities will furnish them with plenty of rationales to keep on pouring the cash into NIH coffers. Absent from these political shenanigans has been even the slightest trace of doubt about the underlying equation: More money will give us better science.

Philanthropists of old could give away their own money and have university buildings named after them and yet still be dismissed as robber barons. Today, a member of Congress can give away other people’s money and be memorialized as a Hero of Science.


Gaming the System

Scientists are peddling hope as well as fear. There’s a growing utopian inclination to believe that relief from the human condition—disease, aging, and perhaps even death itself—can be engineered with the latest technology. Spare body parts and replacement tissue may be created by bioengineers, much as mechanical engineers rebuild an automobile. Again, though, taxpayers are expected to foot the bill, which is where politics comes in. The stem-cell hullabaloo boils down to the single issue of getting the federal government to pay for research that doesn’t look too attractive to venture capitalists.

Scientists have learned to “game the system,” in other words. They didn’t start out that way. But slowly, year by year, they learned to consult their own advantage: Discern a crisis, set up a hue and cry, send out press releases, reward friendly journalists with a heads-up about upcoming results that look newsworthy.

Scientists like to see themselves as motivated by idealism, but self-interest is not far behind. Their embrace of politics has undermined the objectivity that is supposed to be central to science. Day-to-day concerns about their own funding and security, and the fate of their latest grant proposals, overwhelm the more abstract concerns they may once have had about the integrity of the scientific method.