The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Jun 10, 2006

Bush Science Adviser Answers Questions, but Not the Toughest Ones

Cross-posted at

I mentioned earlier this week on my old blog that White House Science Adviser John Marburger would be answering questions from the public via Newsweek, and his answers have now been posted. My reactions are mixed, although he was more open than I had expected. So, what did he say?

Well, I'll start with what he didn't say. He didn't answer any of my questions, which weren't even that hostile, so he loses points for that.

He did answer, though, several questions covering a variety of issues, from alternative fuels to space exploration, from to stem cell funding to the administration's attitude toward science. He even managed to say a few encouraging things in the process, although he avoided some issues and followed the Bush Administration line on others.

The Good

From the outset, he breaks with Bush Administration policy in answering a question about teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution:
Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Intelligent design is not a scientific concept. One cannot be an "alternative" to the other.

Marburger also responds to an allegation that the U.S. focuses too much funding on long-term alternative energy development projects like hydrogen fuel at the expense of short-term solutions such as hybrid vehicles:
The federal government tends to fund long lead-time, high-risk research while the private sector funds shorter-term, lower-risk research and development. Both are necessary in a balanced R&D portfolio. The long-term alternatives have the potential for a much greater impact on energy technology and will definitely be needed in the future.

The Bad

In response to a question about political interference in science:
I believe such criticisms are off the mark and are based on incomplete knowledge of the administration's actions and positions. Political tensions are normal in Washington, and advocates seek to spin every incident into support for their causes. Whenever an accusation of political influence is brought to my attention, I act immediately to find out the circumstances and how the cognizant department or agency is dealing with it. The president expects agencies to report scientific findings fully and without distortion.

That would be great... if it were true. I have seem absolutely no evidence of him playing an active role in fighting political interference in science, and he is part of an administration that has time and time again suppressed science that does not fall in line with its agenda.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, Marburger delivers the administration line verbatim in defending President Bush's restrictive policies on embryonic stem cell funding:
Objections to embryonic stem-cell research are rooted in ethical principles and the idea of compromising these is repugnant to many U.S. citizens. Science alone cannot resolve ethical dilemmas, but it can clarify the potential benefits of stem-cell research. Based on careful consideration of both scientific information and ethical concerns, the president has, for the first time in history, made it possible for embryonic stem-cell research to be federally funded.

The last line is my favorite--a textbook example of GOP spin. Stem cells did not even emerge on the national agenda until the end of Clinton's administration, so Bush is basically the first president who has had the opportunity to address the issue head on. He failed miserably, and it's disappointing, to say the least, to see his science advisor letting scientific progress take a backseat to political ideology.


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