Scientists Say Bush Stifles Science and Lets Global Leadership Slip

President Bush delivers the State of the Union address, Monday, Jan. 28, 2008, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Image credit: AP Photo/Tim Sloan, Pool)

In his final State of the Union address, President George W. Bush devoted several lines to science and technology topics. He called for research and funding to reduce oil dependency and reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.

"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow," Bush said. [Full Text]

But several scientists around the country aren't buying what they see as rhetoric not backed by funding. And they are frustrated by what they view as the White House's morality-based politics that they say ignores scientific evidence, distorts facts and leads to outright censorship of reports and scientists. The White House responded to the criticisms point-by-point.

In email interviews this week with 21 researchers in various fields of study, LiveScience and found widespread criticism for Bush's "retardation of research," as one scientist put it, that threatens to knock the country out of its global leadership role in science and technology.

"Science has been seriously undermined by the censorship and alteration of testimony and news releases," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "Science and facts are not a factor in decisions, and ideology dominates."

(A Democratic congressional report in December stated: "The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.")

Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at John Moores University in the UK, holds a more favorable view of the president.

"Bush has been as supportive and as reluctant as one would expect from a very conservative president," Peiser said.

And Peiser disagreed with the perception that America's heydays are over.

"Scientific research and exploration have continued to advance during Bush's presidency," Peiser said. "The United States remains the top country in the world on every aspect of science and research and it is still the most popular destination for international scientists looking for a better career and future."

Broad criticisms

Trenberth's criticisms, however, were echoed by several researchers.

"Science establishes facts but facts can unmask bad policy," said Ken Caldeira, a climate and ecology researcher at Stanford University. "Thus good science has been seen as a threat by the Bush administration."

Alan W. Harris, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute at La Canada, Calif., accused the White House of "systematic suppression of scientific evidence that does not support administration plans."

Responding to the criticisms, Kristin Scuderi, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, said thousands of scientists routinely conduct their business without controversy or complaint.

"There have been rare instances of inappropriate direction by individuals at the agency level, but these have been dealt with by the agency in each case," Scuderi said. "It is administration policy to rely on science, and such instances reflect errors in judgment made by individuals within agencies."

Harris has little faith that Bush's speech will lead to any increased funding for basic research. "Bush has proposed in his budgets to 'double the support for research,' but this has translated into boosting budgets for research related to defense and security far more than for truly 'basic' research," he said.

Other scientists cautioned about a decline in U.S. science leadership that predates Bush and has worsened under him.

For example, the leadership role in particle physics, the field in which giant accelerators conjure up conditions that prevailed just after the Big Bang, has waned over the past decades, said Pran Nath, particle physicist at Northeastern University in Boston. "The Bush administration was unable to arrest this decline, leaving Europe and Japan to assume leadership role in this area."

"We are falling behind the rest of the world in science because we are not making a budgetary commitment to it," said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State.

Hot-button issues

On specific hot-button issues, several researchers voiced similar criticisms.

Joshua Hart, a psychologist at Union College in New York, summarized the frustrations of many researchers.

"The administration contributed egregiously to the false impression (among the public) of a scientific 'debate' about the existence and causes of global warming," Hart said. He also called "the retardation of research involving embryonic stem cells" one of the worst things that has happened during this administration, along with "the rolling back of funding of the social sciences."

Scuderi, the White House spokeswoman, disagreed.

"Since 2001 the administration has acknowledged the existence of global warming and the fact that human activities have contributed to it," Scuderi told LiveScience today. "It only takes a quick look at NASA or NOAA websites, for example to see that they reflect the actual state of the science of global warming. Prior to 2007 the basis for administration climate science policy was a report from the National Academy of Sciences. After 2007 the basis for climate policy has been the IPCC reports," referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

White House Office of Science & Technology Policy led the U.S. delegation to the IPCC, Scuderi said, "and has supported the IPCC process and endorsed its outcomes."

Hart also cited "the failure to adequately understand – and consequently convey to the public – the fact that the theory of intelligent design is consensually regarded, in the scientific community, as absolute horse**** unworthy of serious consideration … thereby propagating, again, the illusion that there is substantive scientific debate on the topic (as opposed to the matter being settled, which it is, and unfit for inclusion in our nation’s science classes)."

"Intelligent Design is not regarded as a scientific topic," Scuderi countered. "The President's Science Advisor has been very clear on this point. The notion that the administration 'propagates' anything about intelligent design is absurd."

"A president who does not accept evolution is clearly someone who cannot change their mind in face of overwhelming factual evidence," said Sean Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

One of the best things that happened to science under Bush is "the continued growth of genome sciences, for which the administration deserves no credit, other than staying out of the way," Carroll said.

But Ardeshir B. Damania, a genetic resources analyst at the University of California, Davis, gave the administration high marks for its support of science and technology research.

"In the war on terror the Bush administration has taken action to utilize and fund scientific research to keep the country safe," Damania said. He also credited Bush with supporting stem cell research that "allows scientists to do their research without compromising human life."

In his speech, Bush called the recent discovery of a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells a "landmark achievement." But other scientists worry that while the method does not require destruction of discarded human embryos, it also remains an unproven technology and could be used to further thwart funding for true embryonic stem cell research.

Not just Bush

Suppressing science to suit policy is nothing new, explains Roger Launius, a former NASA historian and chairman of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Since the 1970s, Launius said, "some in industry and on the religious right have disliked the use of scientific studies by government officials as justification for actions that they viewed as counterproductive to their best interests." A broad and concerted effort to question scientific findings has affected everything from regulations on harmful chemicals and the control of tobacco to the energy issue, climate change, evolution, embryonic stem cell research, sex education and health care, he said.

"The Bush administration has been at the forefront of this effort in the first part of the 21st century," Launius said. "It represents a coordinated and frightening attack on the scientific consensus."

Launius said this administration "is probably not the worst ever when it comes to a commitment to science and technology, but it probably comes close."

One researcher who wished not to be named said "the further polarization and politicization of science" that has occurred under Bush "has been an outgrowth of partisanship that began during the Clinton administration."

Out there

The president got few high marks from the space-exploration community, either, his pledge in 2004 to return humans to the moon by 2020 seen as withering from lack of active support by the administration.

"NASA was given a vision, but neither the budget nor the political support to make it happen," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "That has to be addressed by the next administration."

Alan P. Boss, a planet-formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said Bush is supportive of scientific research and exploration superficially, but not in practice.

"Most of the major science priorities in the vision, such as the Mars Sample Return mission and imaging extrasolar Earths, have been drastically reduced, delayed, or eliminated because of the shortage of funds to accomplish all of the worthy tasks in the vision," Boss said.

"The Bush administration has been supportive of the American Competitiveness Initiative," said Craig Wheeler, president of the American Astronomical Society. "That is good, but that support has not been translated into action and budgets."

The ACI would spend tens of billions of dollars over 10 years on research and development, education, and to encourage entrepreneurship. Bush established it two years ago.

"For the past two years the president has requested large increases in basic research funding in the physical sciences," Scuderi said. "Congress has expressed support for the ACI, but under-funded it by half in the first year and provided very little funding for it in the second year."

Wheeler said something had to be done about the lack of vision for NASA after the Columbia tragedy. "The problem is that the administration did not maintain focus on that issue and the result is that NASA has been tasked with far too much with insufficient budget."

Scuderi said one of the vision's features "is that space exploration is 'a journey, not a race' and that it be accomplished 'step by step' in a sustainable way based on available budgets. NASA's budget is substantial, both for space science and for space exploration; its budget has grown steadily on an annual basis since the president announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004," she said.

"Currently NASA must fund both the vision and the shuttle program," Scuderi said. "And with the retirement of the Shuttle in 2010 — a pivotal element of the vision — NASA's budget will have significantly more resources available to accomplish the first lunar mission."

Others researchers, however, see the vision for NASA fading at a time when private enterprise aims high.

The vision has "effectively gutted existing programs in favor of much administrative restructuring that seems likely to be undone with a new administration next year," said Margaret C. Turnbull, an astrobiologist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "Therefore I don't expect the vision to develop fully, and meanwhile the other big programs have been delayed or cancelled. Not good. These are uncertain times for space science, and our best hopes for near-term progress may be in privately funded initiatives, like the X-prizes."

Peiser, the social anthropologist, monitors climate change issues and various NASA projects. He credited the current administration with having "a growing recognition of public/private partnerships and private enterprise in space exploration."

The next president

Researchers are hoping for major policy shifts with the next president.

"The coming administration must articulate a broad vision on science in the United States," said Pran Nath, the particle physicist. "The science policy must be long-range. It is not possible to undertake broad initiatives in science on four-year election cycles."

"The next president also has to listen carefully to his or her top science advisors, allowing hard science, and not politics, to inform policy," said Michael Mann, the climate scientist.

Several researchers compared the soaring costs of defense spending with the flat or sinking budgets for science, basic technology research and educational initiatives to spur competitiveness.

Still, there is hope.

"Our computers may be made in China, but most computers and software programs are designed in the U.S.," said Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "We have to be careful not to rest on our laurels though, lest we slip into a predominantly service economy."

Kruger added: "If we devoted just 10 percent of what it costs to stay in Iraq to improving the USA's educational infrastructure, I think we would rise substantially in those international rankings of educational achievement."

"With luck, the contrast between the lack of leadership in the U.S. and the strong focused programs in Europe and Asia will put the U.S. back in the position where someone here has to think about what they need to do to stay competitive," said Paul Calvert, a materials scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Caldeira, the Stanford researcher said he "would like to see an administration that is willing to say: The world is round, life evolved on Earth over billions of years, humans are causing our climate to change, we or our children will need to pay later for what we buy on credit today, and consumption on this planet cannot grow exponentially forever without running into environmental constraints."

Reporting for this article was done by Tariq Malik, Jeanna Bryner, Andrea Thompson, Dave Mosher, Clara Moskowitz and Robert Roy Britt.

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.