Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Objective Scientific Information in the Political World?

This New York Times article reports the outcome of 20 months of wrangling to try to reform the censorship of government scientists and bureaucratic spin on government findings that became so outrageously egregious under the Bush administration.White House Issues Long-Delayed Science GuidelinesKENNETH CHANG (December 17, 2010),

Structurally, there is a conflict of interest between the abstract concept and claims of scientific independence and objectivity with any organization's needs to maintain internal control, sources of funding, and extrinsic political support. 

And morally and ethically speaking? -- well, first and foremost there are structural conflicts of interest!!!! Idealistic  principles and rhetoric may help make people called scientists feel good about themselves but they can only have limited intellectual and expressive freedom within corporate or government  organizations, or within the professional alliance networks that help them get tenure and grants.  These sorts of things have been discussed extensively from various perspectives. One book that comes readily to mind is How Institutions Think, but Mary Douglas http://www.amazon.com/Institutions-Think-Frank-Abrams-Lectures/dp/0815602065/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1292692090&sr=1-1 Institutions must support certain fictions about themselves to function, and individuals entering these institutions must play along and not rock the boat, or they will most probably be out-grouped and their functionality impaired -- or they may even be expelled. In business, so what? Hype is a publicly understood part of the game. But in science, religion, and certain professions challenging the company line can sometimes be a more delicate matter. These institutions allege to stand for truth and objectivity, and it is understood that internal criticism is part of the workings that help earn them their reputations, but there are conventions for internal disagreement depending on the institution. One can be a critic and respected within the professional network if one can assure the others that s/he is nevertheless a team player. 

Scientists in government agencies are likewise expected to be team players. They can voice certain disagreements if they voice them internally and if they know when to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat.  The powers that be, for example among elected officials and industrial power-brokers, expect the bureaucrats to be able to keep control over their underlings. If they do not, then their careers are at stake and their budgets. It is difficult to see how to write a set of guidelines that could change such political realities with words. In part the system does need to strive for coordination and accountability and one cannot simply write out elements on which coordination and accountability might seem normally to depend. 

I dealt intimately with federal government and semi-government agencies for over 25 years at high and low levels and can best comment from personal experience on those that were involved with the development of biotechnology, agriculture, and environmental issues. I also dealt with university scientists that depended on funding in these areas and/or that had strong professional ties with networks of scientists in these areas. I began extensive work in 1983, early in the years when the institutional and ideological foundations were being set in place for what have become national policies on biotechnology in particular. 

In all of the agencies (and scientific networks) there were not only junior but senior scientists who had serious scientific concerns about and serious disagreements with the scientific policies and rhetoric of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and what became entrenched. Yet agency heads and university officials had their marching orders. I was also being fed concerns from scientists in a very powerful semi-governmental organization -- the National Academy of Sciences. 

Those many scientists with concerns existed in a working and political environment where the party line was to be defensive and dismissive, especially publicly, of any concerns about what administration jargon called the National Biotechnology Agenda. At every turn, I was meeting scientists with deep scientific concerns but who would only discuss them privately. To speak out publicly about their concerns would have been "talking out of school," which means being a "snitch." 

I am not in any way implying that there were not true believers in the party line!! Of course there were. And there were many who simply did not want to think beyond the conventions of how it was socially acceptable to have questions. The issue is the freedom of scientists in institutions who do have serious doubts that go beyond the acceptable bounds of disagreement to be public about their scientific perspectives that disagree seriously with what they see as the party line. Those bounds can be especially tight in government agencies when they are under political pressures, or in academic departments where particular perspectives hold sway. Then the dissenter needs special support or must simply be willing to endure the inevitable social/professional penalties.

Kids learn early that talking out of school does not mean to their peers "seeking justice" or "fighting for truth." It means being an unreliable team player. The psychology of the social animal easily transcends concerns over particular instances of bullying in school yards or prison yards. So any gains that might be had from seeking justice in particular situations run the risk of long term penalties in terms of social ostracism and revenge. Thus the easiest thing is for the individual to conform to group thinking, or at least to go along with it and try to not rock the boat.  

This principle seems to be learned at a very early stage in socialization (or is it a largely hard-wired social animal trait?) and it is carried over into adult supposedly rationally organized institutions and social networks. In any event one sees it to lesser or greater degrees even in government and universities and scientific networks, and in religions etc. 

Again, I was running into this climate of concern, frustration, and even fear at every turn in my work on biotechnology issues that began in 1983. Scientists in all government organizations had various serious scientific concerns but would only discuss them in private and would not "talk out of school." They would share their concerns because they had quickly learned that I was not the sort of person who would use their names without their permission and put their careers at risk.

By scientific concerns I mean several things. My own "assignment" so to speak was to help especially at the urging of the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, university colleagues, David Kingsbury as he became Chairman of the White House Biotechnology Sciences Coordinating Committee (BSCC), and to a lesser extent the Department of Agriculture, Office of Technology Assessment, Food and Drug Administration, National Academy of Sciences, and various professional scientific organizations to try to understand how to think about any risks to the environment from recombinant DNA, and later to think about risks to food safety and human health.  Most biologists were and are specialists and yet this sort of analysis required integrative thinking, and I had a reputation for being good at this and also for having an unusually broad grasp of concepts and facts in diverse fields of biology. 

So most of my work and discussions over the decades had to do with these sorts of environmental and health safety concerns within the agencies. But there were other scientific concerns as well that were not directly tied to health and safety risks. Some had to do with "effectiveness." That is, were the proponents of biotech in science and industry too wrapped up in their enthusiasm and the competitive atmosphere of hype so that they were making unrealistic promises too readily? 

Eventually many books will be written about scientifically ill-conceived biotechnology projects that consumed a great deal -- to say the least -- of time, money, institutional, and other resources. A central problem was and has been that the promotional hype of proponent scientists has been far ahead of both the conceptual science and technologies themselves and in many cases not simply "ahead of" but ignorant of their limitations. 

This problem in turn stemmed not only from an intoxicating climate of business promotion and mega-dollars but from the fact that most of the scientists that founded molecular biology were chemists and physicists. Moreover, microbiologists and most other  scientists that later became involved in biotechnology continued to have only very narrow scientific training -- commonly only in biochemistry, molecular genetics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and perhaps microbiology and the outlook was typically conceptually reductionist and typological. They had little if any substantial experience with sciences that dealt with complexity and emergent properties.  

Could biotech for example really solve the world hunger problem as was being promised? World hunger is in fact a complex problem and does not reduce conceptually to a global food shortage and the problem of growing more food on each plot of land. Moreover, there may in any event be limits to how much food can be produced by a corn or rice plant for example simply by manipulating its genetics. And is the potential of manipulating genetics with recombinant DNA significantly greater than with traditional breeding? This gives only a small glimpse into discussions that consumed countess hours among top scientists around the world behind the scenes as the "national biotechnology initiative' steamed in any event full steam ahead in its foundation years in the Reagan and Bush administration era. Many scientists had serious doubts about these and other claims that were being made.

Parenthetically, I might comment on how these particular claims have held up after some 30 years of discussions and research. Today one does still hear the "feed the world with biotech" claims though there are still no substantial reasons to believe them.  It has become more common to hear proponents say something like "we think that biotech could play some significant role in addressing the world's hunger problems." And of course this toned-down claim might be true, though what that role might be is still speculative. This is a long discussion. Also, it has become ever clearer as the industry has developed that the thrust is toward corporate monopolization of world food production, processing, and delivery. This could actually worsen world hunger. 

Here again, if one is a scientist that is trained to solve problems by focusing narrowly, one tends not be be sufficiently careful in thinking about real organism or real-world complexities and tends to ignore them as "details" or tries to explain them away without really knowing much about them.  

I could go on and on with "insider" examples related to biotechnology and genetic engineering. I could also give many examples of what was happening with regard to government agencies and the environment, for example in the national parks and national forests. My point however is that the suppression of scientific dissent in government agencies did not begin in the administration of George W. Bush. It became epidemic in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Then once arrangements had been forged between government and university bureaucrats and industry these acted as foundations that were not easily undone. The realities of power in American and other industrialized societies had become clear enough and the Clinton administration could probably not have taken  apart and reconstituted the cultures that had developed even if it had known how to reform "the system," or indeed even if it had wanted to. The Bush II administration simply continued the manipulations of scientists that had developed earlier and arguably made the situation worse. 

Why were Reagan and Bush I so successful at manipulating the agencies? Some of this should be obvious. One factor is that Reagan was swept in by a team that included conservative think tanks and activist foundations that had been watching the government for years and had philosophical agendas and plans well worked out and were even published.  They also brought in any number of corporate executives that had spent their careers shaking up and rebuilding organizations. They were by no means great scholars but they were well studied in top management, had important connections, and were largely on the same page politically/philosophically.  They had useful ties with the military and intelligence communities and with both old and new money. 

I think it would be a serious mistake to go along with the conventional wisdom that the Bush II administration was corrupt and that the manipulation of government science could easily be ended by an administration that is or "should be" more virtuous. There is a terrible historical legacy that involves individuals on staffs and networks of individuals in and out of government and perceptions of power in America. These can be thought of as cultural or structural problems. It is not clear that these could possibly be changed by issuing a "set of guidelines" alone.  

Moreover, the "guidelines" approach is complicated by the fact that there will in any profession or organization be differences of opinion that need to be talked out. The ideal way to do this would be internally so to speak, in a collegial manner, without grandstanding. Then if there can not be agreement, a minority report should be issued. But of course organizations do not like to appear to be in disarray.  And politicians in particular do not like to be handed disputes to have to deal with, so division can be a threat to agency political support and budgets. 

I would like to close by going back to an example from biotech. Iowa lawyer Steven Druker using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that division heads with scientific credentials within the Food and Drug Administration and a Compliance Officer seriously disagreed with the science used to draft the FDA guidelines on genetically engineered foods (Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties, May 29, 1992, Federal Register vol. 57, No. 104 at 22991)  The guidelines suggested that there were not significant concerns and they did not reflect these serious disagreements among FDA scientists. Anyone at all close to the situation understood that the administrators were clearly caving into political pressures. Yet the administrators could in their defence say that they had many factors to weigh in issuing the guidelines and that scientific disagreements are quite normal. On the surface this is quite reasonable as a general statement. Administrators do need a certain amount of discretion. But the problem is that it is an administrative perspective and a general truth that can be used to cover up considerable abuse in particular instances such as this. 

One could make the same points about National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council reports. They are commissioned by agencies to help give them reliable scientific direction. So they strive as much as possible to take diverse scientific views and come up with a consensus in order to earn their keep, so to speak. Hopefully not to overstate the frequency of this -- the problem is that too often they only appear to provide a consensus and sometimes important scientific disagreements sink into the background and are hidden behind smooth rhetoric. Yet -- and this is my point -- the NAS is NOT under the direct control of the White House. It is simply necessarily involved in the political realities in Washington and the US, and must work in that environment to keep the perception that it is the place of importance and "the place to go" for objective scientific authority. Some of their reports are very good and others not so good.    

1 comment:

  1. It is depressing to hear someone with your considerable experience state that the politicization of science has been extensive since Reagan (that's 30 years), and that the problem is deep and structural.

    Still it's good to see recent reports from the NAS that compare the credentials of the 97% of scienmtists who agree that AGW is real with the 3% that don't.

    But, as you say, some of the NAS stuff is good, and some of it isn't.

    Thank goodness for blogs where we can actually hear at least some scientists speak their mind on these issues.

    The pressure to sensationalize results is particularly odious. I just read an article in a widely read publication that headlined "New Species?" of human being. The actual quote from the researcher in the article said there was "no reason" to speculate on a new species based on their findings. This is the level of integrity we get on a daily basis.

    As the new GOP majority congress comes online, I expect to hear yet more idiocy about how climate scientists are trying to kill jobs, etc...

    Oh well, Merry Christmas!