WHEN CRITICS BEMOAN the politicization of science, they usually point a bitter finger at the Bush administration. Their condemnation should actually be aimed in the opposite direction. Increasingly, it is the scientists themselves--or better stated the leaders of the science sector--who are devolving science from the apolitical pursuit of knowledge into a distinctly ideological enterprise.
The creation of a new 527 advocacy PAC called Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) is the latest example of this phenomenon. SEA claims to be entering the political fray because the nation's leaders "systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research." But most of the problems SEA identifies on its website as supposedly threatening science are actually disputes about ethics, philosophy, or social theory--areas of human concern that are not within the scientific realm.
The brouhaha over President Bush's federal funding limitations on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is a prime example of a dispute that SEA pretends is scientific, but which really centers on values and ethics. "Decisions concerning the future of biological research," the SEA Website asserts, "must always rely on the best available evidence and on transparent decision making processes. Researchers have a strong history of conducting thoughtful ethical reviews of their work and must continue to do so while resisting ideologically driven interference." In other words, the stem cell research community has determined what is ethical in the field and opinions to the contrary are presumptuous and should be disregarded as mere "ideologically driven interference."
But "the scientists" who SEA claims should have the primary say over these matters are just as ideological as those with whom they disagree. If you doubt this, consider the voluntary "ethical guidelines" for conducting embryonic stem cell research published in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Not only would the NAS permit the destruction of leftover IVF embryos for use in ESCR, but it also advocates using embryos "made specifically for research" both through fertilization and human cloning. In other words, one of the country's most prestigious science organizations believes that embryos can be created and harvested like a mere crop of corn for the sake of biotechnological research.
For many people, the NAS's ethics opinion constitutes a profoundly radical and subversive denigration of the widely held moral belief that human life has extraordinary value merely because it is human. Applying this moral view to stem cell research doesn't make these objectors anti-science--nor, for that matter, is the NAS's contrary opinion pro-science--since the question of whether it is right or wrong to create human embryos for research cannot be answered through scientific methods.
Most of the other "science" issues that concern the SEA are actually political and policy questions about which reasonable people may differ. Predictably, SEA brings up climate change and points toward Al Gore-type approaches as best for dealing with the supposed crisis. For example, the group urges the creation of "tradable permits in greenhouse gasses or equivalent incentives to encourage innovation and drive investment in cost-effective technologies." This is pure political advocacy. It may even be good political advocacy. But it is not ideological interference with science if others disagree.
And is immigration policy as it relates to national security really a science issue? According to SEA, apparently so. One of its advocacy goals will be to "ensure that inappropriate security concerns do not block American access to the best students and researchers from around the world."
A careful perusal of SEA's website reveals the organization's primary mission; vacuuming billions from public coffers into the science sector. In this sense, SEA is merely accelerating the ongoing metamorphosis of science into just another special interest willing to use all the political tools of the trade in order to gain increased access to the public trough.
Thus, the SEA seeks "increased federal and state-level public investment"--read, public spending--"in a balanced portfolio of research and development activities." It further demands that the government "remove inappropriate limits on stem cell research," meaning dramatic increases in NIH grants for ESCR and public funding of human cloning research. It urges that public policy "promote new partnerships between government-funded researchers and industry, including the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors"--in other words, time to ratchet up the corporate welfare! And it seeks "an aggressive program of research and innovation incentives," to promote more efficient energy use, which would, not coincidentally, provide substantial financial benefits to an increasingly powerful science-industrial complex.
SEA plans to present itself to the media and public as a "grass roots" organization. Front group for vested interests is more like it. When I first learned about the organization, I went to its website and asked to "sign up for e-mail alerts." The next day I received an e-mail response thanking me "for joining Scientists and Engineers for America"--which I had not done--and asking that I help the group achieve its goal of signing up more than 10,000 members. "We can reach this goal if you help spread the word about SEA to your friends, family and colleagues," Mike Brown, SEA's executive director wrote. "As you know, membership in SEA is free and anyone can join," meaning, of course, that so-called membership is essentially meaningless.
SEA claims to be advocating for science. But by crossing the crucial line that separates science from special interest advocacy--and by co-opting the coinage of accumulated community trust in science to achieve its own distinctly financial and ideological ends--SEA risks lowering the public's opinion of the scientific community. If that happens, these scientists will only have themselves to blame.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His website is wesleyjsmith.com.