WASHINGTON — More than 4,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences, accused the Bush administration Thursday of distorting and suppressing science to suit its political goals.
"Across a broad range of policy areas, the administration has undermined the quality and independence of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government's outstanding scientific personnel," the scientists said in a letter.
The administration has frequently been accused of misusing and ignoring science to further its policy aims. The list of signatures collected by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that the issue has become worrisome throughout the scientific community.
This administration distorts scientific knowledge on stem cell research, which makes it increasingly difficult to have an honest debate in a field that holds promise for treatment of many serious diseases like Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes.
Janet Rowley, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics
Administration officials rejected the criticism Thursday, as they did when the same letter was released in February bearing the names of 62 prominent scientists.
John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the letter and a report released simultaneously by the Union of Concerned Scientists "reach conclusions that are wrong and misleading."
"This administration values and supports science, both as a vital necessity for national security and economic strength and as an indispensable source of guidance for national policy," Marburger said.
The scientists cited examples of colleagues denied seats on advisory panels, allegedly because of their political beliefs.
Dr. Gerald T. Keusch, who left his post as associate director for international research and director of the John E. Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health, said the Department of Health and Human Services had rejected 19 of his 26 candidates for the center's board over three years. Among the 19 was a Nobel laureate who, Keusch said he was told, was turned down because his name had appeared in newspaper ads accusing the administration of manipulating science.
His nominations for the board — which advises on which research should receive federal grants — were accepted during the Clinton administration. But once President Bush took office, Keusch said, they "were rejected one after another."
"There are increasing bits of evidence at attempts at control over the business of science," said Keusch, now the assistant provost for global health at Boston University Medical Center.
He said he was motivated to speak out not by "political malice," but a desire to protect the "integrity of science" at the NIH.
Among the Keusch nominees rejected by the HHS was Jane Menken, a population expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder who had served on scientific advisory boards under President Reagan and the first President Bush. "I was being renominated and I was turned down," she said. "No official ever gave me any reason."
Contrary to the Bush administration, Menken supports the availability of legal abortions. She said that given her qualifications and those of two colleagues rejected with her, one a Nobel laureate, "it's very hard not to reach a conclusion that it was based on something different from scientific qualifications."
Department spokesman Bill Pierce said the appointments to many National Institutes of Health panels were made by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, not NIH directors such as Keusch.
"I completely reject the notion" that the administration is manipulating government science to bolster its policy aims, he said. "There's no evidence."
But Janet Rowley, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, said she had seen the misuse of science firsthand.
"This administration distorts scientific knowledge on stem cell research, which makes it increasingly difficult to have an honest debate in a field that holds promise for treatment of many serious diseases like Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes," Rowley said. She added that the administration, which opposes research with most embryonic stem cells, had exaggerated the usefulness of adult stem cells.
Richard Myers, director of the Stanford Human Genome Center, said he was rejected for a seat on the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research after he told an administration official that it was inappropriate to ask him his opinion of Bush, according to the report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. He later received the post after an NIH director interceded on his behalf.
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