With the Democrats' return to power in Congress, a new era of scientific integrity is within reach. Chris Mooney's five-point plan for restoring truth in Washington.

With Democrats in triumphant control of Congress, there is a widespread hope that they will rein in George W. Bush’s administration on all fronts. By passing legislation that broadens federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, as well as by casting light on some of the more dubious goings-on of the past six years, the Democrats could go a long way toward restoring scientific integrity to the U.S. government.

The Bush administration has been the chief prosecutor of an ongoing war on science, but until now a look-the-other-way Republican Congress has served as accomplice. Here, I propose five actions that Democrats should take to help set matters straight.


1. Shine A Little Light
Using their newly obtained powers of subpoena, Democratic committee chairs will be able to force information out of the Bush administration; the word “oversight,” seemingly forgotten on Capitol Hill, will once again have some meaning. The implications for the “war on science” are major. For example, Democrats can explore why political appointees at the Department of Commerce were apparently handpicking which scientists could talk to the media about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming in 2005.

The use of committee hearings to explore abuses of science could keep the new Congress quite busy, as this appears to be a government-wide problem. Over the past six years, there have been significant science-related scandals involving NASA, the Department of the Interior (particularly the Fish and Wildlife Service), the Department of Commerce (especially the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Department of Health and Human Services (especially the Food and Drug Administration), the Environmental Protection Agency, and many other agencies. It may require the attention of more than one committee to look into all of this: Maybe the House Committees on Science and Government Reform could arrange a one-two investigative punch.

In any event, up until now we have largely relied upon journalists and advocacy groups to expose anti-science malfeasance in our government. The Freedom of Information Act has been an invaluable tool in this regard. Still, the amount of information these muckrakers can gather has been limited. Democrat-run congressional committees, on the other hand, will have considerably more power to conduct far-ranging and thorough investigations. And they shouldn’t be afraid to use it.


2. Get Some Advice
A smart symbolic maneuver on the part of Democrats would be to restore Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, a world-renowned scientific advisory body that the Republican Congress dismantled in 1995. OTA got the science right, but its studies sometimes offended political sensibilities. The office should return in precisely the same bipartisan format in which it originally existed: Democrats and Republicans would jointly decide which studies to commission.

To be sure, OTA alone cannot make the worst science abusers in Congress clean up their act. The unrepentant will simply ignore (or attack) its work. Nevertheless, restoring OTA would, in turn, be a step toward restoring a sense of seriousness and dignity to congressional conversations about science. It would provide a baseline for determining what types of information Congress should and shouldn’t accept. There’s really no downside here: In 1995 the office’s annual budget was only about $22 million.


3. Make Sure You’re Hearing Right
When they ran Congress, Republicans all too often made a mockery of the hearings process, inviting unqualified (or possibly conflicted) witnesses to advise them on science. The low point, perhaps, came when Sen. James Inhofe, then head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, brought in novelist Michael Crichton to testify about climate science shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita had devastated the Gulf Coast.

The new Congress must do more than be wary of novelists testifying as scientists. Democrats should establish a procedure for vetting the experts who testify, in much the same way that medical journals vet scientific publications. Scientists called upon to advise Congress should be required to disclose, publicly and in full, any potential conflicts of interest—for example, a connection to a think tank that receives funding from the energy or pharmaceutical industry. Not only would this help expose the “hired guns,” but it would also ensure that Congress receives more-balanced information and reveal whether the sources that are providing that information have any ulterior motivations.


4. Ban the Worst of It
At least some limited legislation should be passed to restore scientific integrity. The muzzling of government scientists and the forced editing of government scientific reports by political branches or appointees should be banned. Congress should also consider rolling back some of the troubling under-the-radar measures that the Bush administration has implemented. For instance, the Data Quality Act, little noticed when it passed Congress as an appropriations rider in 2000, has been seized upon by the administration as a justification for remodeling the government regulatory process in a way that enables special-interest attacks on science. If they don’t decide to repeal the Data Quality Act outright, Democrats should at the very least closely scrutinize how Republicans implemented it.

Another good start would be to pass and, if necessary, repass legislation that would overturn Bush’s restrictions on additional funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Even if the new Congress still does not hold enough votes to overturn a presidential veto, repeated rejections of such legislation by the president would cause a public outcry.


5. Learn From Their Mistakes
Last, and perhaps most important, Democrats must be scrupulously careful not to commit the same sorts of abuses that they’re trying to root out. This is tricky but crucial. There has been massive chatter about the uniquely Republican nature of the current war on science. But journalists are skilled at recognizing, above all else, hypocrisy, and even minor slipups could generate “Democrats are just as bad” stories.

Democrats need to avoid, for example, incautious statements that link global warming to individual weather events or that overplay debatable evidence about its impact on severe storms like hurricanes. They also need to avoid embarrassments like John Edwards’s 2004 campaign pledge that if he and John Kerry were elected, “people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

The truth is that in politics today, everyone needs to use science—and whatever other evidence they can find—to bolster an argument and advance a point of view. But we must avoid opportunism and remain evenhanded in criticizing those who go beyond what the evidence can support. Democrats must be particularly wary of some scientific claims made by their own constituents and supporters—for example, environmental groups. They mean well, but they’ve been caught exaggerating in the past. A good rule of thumb is never to make too much out of a single study. And never speculate. Instead, rely on major, peer-reviewed scientific assessment reports. Following this approach, Democrat assertions about scientific information should remain largely unassailable—and if we’re lucky, a new and much healthier era for science-government relations will dawn.

Originally published March 23, 2007

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