In my reaction to Bora’s interview with Senator Edwards, I focussed on the importance of institutional safeguards for government scientists and presidential science advisors. In particular, I cited the way that President Bush misrepresents the scientific support for his stem cell policies from scientists in his administration and in the community of scientists at large.
Yesterday’s testimony by former surgeon general Carmona emphasizes the importance of establishing institutional safeguards for government science advisors. The LA Times explains that Carmona told the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee “that his speeches were censored to match administration political positions and that he was prevented from giving the public accurate scientific information on issues such as stem cell research and teen pregnancy prevention.” Carmona said that previous surgeons general told him they had faced political interference, but never at the levels he described.
“Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” Carmona explained. When he wanted to speak out in favor of expanded embryonic stem cell research, he was told to “stand down” because the administration made a policy judgment before hearing his views of the available evidence. The administration deleted references to stem cells from public statements he submitted for review. The discussion of stem cell policy within the government was, he testified, “devoid of science.”
The White House trotted out rhetoric which might seem similar on its face to Edwards’s pledge to “ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data…are insulated from political influence.” White House spokesman Tony Fratto told the Times “Dr. Carmona was given the authority and had the obligation to be the leading voice for the health of all Americans. It’s disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation. We believe Dr. Carmona received the support necessary to carry out his mission.” In other words, the Bush Administration thinks it’s Carmona’s fault that his voice wasn’t heard, even though they were the ones censoring his words and controlling his access to decisionmakers and the terms of internal debate about biomedical research policy.
Carmona told Congress that “the reality is that the nation’s doctor has been marginalized and relegated to a position with no independent budget, and with supervisors who are political appointees with partisan agendas.” It is precisely that sort of bureaucratic interference that is hardest to root out, but which can most effectively block a President from getting the best scientific advice possible. The Surgeon General answers to an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services. Unlike Bush I and Clinton, the current administration has not granted the national science advisor status as “assistant to the President,” status which allows more frequent access to the President. Bush chose to isolate himself from scientific counsel, and allowed the nomination for his science advisor to languish in the Senate until after he had made decisions about stem cell policy and other key issues.
One such issue was the push for abstinence-only sex education. Carmona testified that he supported comprehensive approaches to sex ed, including providing information about condoms to sexually active teens. The administration, he testified “did not want to hear the science … but wanted to preach abstinence, which I felt was scientifically incorrect.”
The nominee to succeed Carmona will undoubtedly offer less resistance to the administration. The gay-bashing cardiologist already sacrificed his scientific integrity in writing an anti-gay position paper for the United Methodist Church, adopting positions rejected by the scientific evidence. To bolster his fore-ordained conclusion, Dr. James Holsinger was glad to draw on the claims advanced by groups listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.