Scientists and Political Involvement

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Publication date: 
7 October 2004

At last week's AAAS Candidates' Forum on Science & Technology Policy, the representatives of the campaigns for President George Bush and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) gave fairly familiar answers to questions regarding science policy. (See references to several web resources.) One subject not previously addressed attracted considerable attention: the role of scientists in the political process.

Representing the Bush-Cheney campaign was former Representative Robert S. Walker (R-PA). Walker was a prominent Republican leader during his 20-year tenure in the House and was the chairman of the House Science Committee. The representative for the Kerry-Edwards campaign was Henry Kelly. Kelly is now the president of the Federation of American Scientists and was assistant director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The 90-minute forum was moderated by Mary Woolley, the president of Research!America. An audio cast of this forum may be heard at

Early in the forum Woolley asked the following question, which was referred to later by Walker:

WOOLLEY: "As a follow-up to that question about social and behavioral sciences there has been some threat recently to the peer review process raised by your former colleagues on the floor of the House questioning some specific grants and their value. And I wonder whether the Administration overall has a position on that and whether the Kerry administration would?"

WALKER: "Well, I think that the Administration has shown that it is very much in favor of peer-reviewed science and this is something that happens in Congress from time-to-time. If you don't have people who can kind of consistently go to the [House] floor and explain why science has to have some latitude to look at a variety of subjects, you find people who go through the grant process and find projects that they can bring to the floor as wasteful spending. It's been a long tradition in the Congress and sadly some scientists do a very poor job of sometimes describing their science in the title of their projects. And it lends to a political dialogue which is not at all helpful. I am hopeful that the powers that be on Capitol Hill at the present time on the various science committees will take it upon themselves to come out and defend the idea that you ought to have science which is based on peer-review and not on political decision making. I would say that that's also the case that they ought to come out and do the same thing on earmarks. Clearly that does not represent the Administration. The Administration has been very, very good throughout the four years in backing peer-reviewed science."

KELLY: Senator Kerry has "essential[ly] an identical statement about the concern about earmarking and the need for consistent high quality peer review."

A question was then asked about the involvement of scientists in the political process:

WOOLLEY: "To ask each of you to address the fact that it has been apparent to us all that many prominent scientists are in a new way that we haven't seen before taking issue with the Bush Administration, including explicitly lining-up in a very public way for Senator Kerry and a change in Administrations. And this is despite the fact that science funding, as you have pointed out, has indeed increased over the last few years. One question might be, where are the scientists for Bush in a prominent way? Can you comment on that, Bob?"

WALKER: "Well, there are a number of scientists out there who have expressed interest in the Bush campaign and have been prominently willing to endorse President Bush. But look, I mean I think that there is a political dimension to this that just has to be recognized. A lot of scientists have come out of the academic community, come out of institutions that have a heavy liberal bias, and I don't doubt that their politics and so-on reflects not only their judgement about science, but at times their personal politics inside of academia. And, if they want to come out and support Senator Kerry, that's fine. But let's, what I find disappointing is that when we fail to separate the science from the politics. Because you are politically committed to a particular cause does not mean that the other side has in fact undermined science. And I think that science does itself a disservice when in fact when it mixes those two things in a way that can engender a push back at some point even in the future. And so, my intent here is to say, this is an investment, this is an Administration willing to make an investment in science and innovation. The science community ought to recognize that's a plus, not a minus. And that if you engage in political activity, fine, go out as an American citizen and say anything you want about the candidate that you support, but don't suggest that as you do it, that this in some way reflects the reality of the science."

KELLY: "I would like to say one brief thing about the scientists [inaudible]. I think that the issue is why have the scientists been so active in this election as opposed to other elections? It really has been unprecedented. You've had 48 Nobel Laureates come out and flat endorse the Kerry candidacy. Nothing like that happened under the first Bush Administration."

WALKER: "Well, Gore had 52...Nobel Laureates...this isn't unusual."

KELLY: "The fact is that this is a suite of issues which has really mobilized a lot of scientists and gotten them into the political arena, in a very active and aggressive way."

Later in the forum the discussion returned to the above point.

WALKER: "Just to make a point on the whole business of numbers of scientists. Back in 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists did another political document in which they issued an attack on the first Bush Administration. And at that point they had 1,700 scientists that had signed onto it, and they claimed a majority of Nobel Laureates and so on. This is not a new thing in political campaigns. This has been going on for a decade or two, and my point is that it just doesn't have very much to do with whether or not we get good science."

QUESTION FROM THE PRESS: "You said there was a need to separate the science from the politics. Failing to do so would engender a push back at some point in the future. What was meant by that? Can you clarify ‘push back'?"

WALKER: "Well look, the only point I am making is that if scientists are going to be politically active, all of us who have been in politics know that the opposition finds ways of moving in opposite ways at times. And so, what you could find, is that that kind of prominence will create debates on Capitol Hill that I don't think science should do. If you are in fact going to say that your scientific efforts are in fact tied to political decisions, then don't expect that the political decision makers are going to separate it when you want to get away from that kind of a choice. And's that the point that I am making is that in various political forums, science will become a controversial subject rather than a cooperative subject, if you begin to tie the pieces together too closely."

[Kelly declined to comment.]

Woolley asked Kelly and Walker to comment on "sound science." As part of his answer, Kelly stated:

KELLY: "And I think to suggest that because scientists are raising concerns about the openness and integrity of the process if they should come out, that they are going to be punished politically is not a terribly attractive message to be sending."

WALKER: "Well, no one is suggesting that they are going to be punished politically. Just that if they get into politics, they are going to find that they are in politics, is the important thing."

QUESTION FROM THE PRESS: "I wanted to follow-up on the question of push back and being involved in politics. Because the implication is, if I follow what you said correctly, seemed to be that if science is made a part of political decisions, then it becomes a political matter, and push back may be involved. Since you made the point very clearly at the beginning, of the Bush Administration's support for science funding, are you saying that therefore funding might be in question?"

WALKER: "No, I didn't say that at all. I mean, I didn't even relate it to the Bush Administration. My point is the one we discussed a few minutes ago about the fact that people on Capitol Hill can go and find science projects and begin to ridicule them in the process of what goes on inside [the] congressional process, and they can find ways of cutting money, because they say that something sounds to them to be not what they would want to have happening with public money. You get those kinds of issues arising. I think over the years that I was on Capitol Hill we did a pretty good job of trying to endorse science, even at times when it became controversial to do so. I think that can continue to be the case. My only point is that when you practice politics, you practice politics."

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