Learning science from President Bush

With a new conservative prime minister in office, there’s been plenty of
talk about how much Stephen Harper will try to emulate American-style
policies. We can only hope he doesn’t follow the Bush administration’s
confused and confusing take on science.


Vol. 7 No. 16
February 08, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
Learning science from President Bush
With a new conservative prime minister in office, there’s been plenty of
talk about how much Stephen Harper will try to emulate American-style
policies. We can only hope he doesn’t follow the Bush administration’s
confused and confusing take on science.
Most people are probably aware of the official American government position
on climate change, which has ranged from it isn’t happening; to it may be
happening, but it has nothing to do with people; to, okay, maybe it is
happening, but there’s nothing we can really do about it. American
diplomats even walked out of talks during the December climate negotiations
in Montreal because they simply were not prepared to discuss any plans that
would call for future reductions of heat-trapping emissions.
Meanwhile, the prime minister of the country Mr. Bush calls “America’s
closest ally,” Britain, recently wrote in the foreword to the new report
Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, that “the risks of climate change may
well be greater than we thought.” Mr. Blair called the current growth in
greenhouse emissions “unsustainable,” and noted: “Action now can help avert
the worst effects of climate change. With foresight such action can be
taken without disturbing our way of life.”
But back in the United States, the top climate scientist at NASA has
accused the Bush administration of trying to silence him. James Hansen says
that after he gave a lecture promoting the necessity of reducing
heat-trapping greenhouse emissions, the public affairs headquarters at NASA
in Washington, D.C. ordered a review of all his upcoming lectures, papers,
Internet postings and interview requests. Dr. Hansen told the New York
Times that nothing in his 30 years with NASA compares to the scrutiny he
now faces in his daily activities.
And he’s not the only scientist to complain about the Bush administration’s
unofficial policies of censorship. The Union of Concerned Scientists has
gathered a list of more than 8,000 researchers asking the White House to
stop politicizing their disciplines. A preface to the list claims that:
“Across a broad range of issues – from childhood lead poisoning and mercury
emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons –
political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that
contradict established policies.”
Science should not be a partisan issue. In fact, perhaps the best criticism
of the American government’s politicization of science comes from
Republican Representative Sherwood Boehlert, who is also Chair of the House
Science Committee. In a letter to NASA administration, he condemned Dr.
Hansen’s censorship, writing, “Political figures ought to be reviewing
their public statements to make sure they are consistent with the best
available science. Scientists should not be reviewing their statements to
make sure they are consistent with the current political orthodoxy.”
I could not agree more. I obtained my PhD from the University of Chicago in
1961 and shudder to think of what would have happened to my emerging
discipline of genetics had the government of the time deemed that it did
not conform to established policy. It’s ironic that the current government
of a country that prides itself on innovation and the quality of its
research should be trying to censor the same people responsible for
America’s continued technological and scientific success.
Not all of Mr. Bush’s actions on science are off base. In his recent State
of the Union address, he committed to a doubling of federal funds for basic
scientific research. At a time when more and more research funds are
dedicated to applied research, usually with some kind of industrial
application, it’s refreshing to see an emphasis on the basics that form the
backbone of scientific knowledge.
Perhaps Mr. Bush’s recent announcement signals a change of tune. But unless
we see a radical shift, the best advice I can give Mr. Harper is that if he
hopes to learn anything from Mr. Bush’s scientific record, it’s what not to do.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at http://www.davidsuzuki.org.
– 30 –

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