A clash of science and politics

November 24, 1995|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- Subtly and directly, the reigning powers on Capitol Hill are signaling the nation's researchers to steer clear of politically sensitive topics. This has happened before, particularly on abortion-related matters. What's occurring now is far broader and more insistent attempt to intimidate scientists who pursue politically incorrect interests.

The latest episode concerns a study of firearm injuries, financed by the National Center for Injury Prevention, part of the world- renowned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten senators, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, have denounced the study as hostile to legitimate gun owners -- a judgment applauded by the National Rifle Association.

In homicides, suicides and accidents, guns kill some 37,000 people a year and are the leading cause of death among teen-agers and young adults. Under its mandate to protect the public health, the center has been sponsoring two small university-based studies of gun-related injuries -- how they occur and what might be done to prevent them. The studies continue, but with money in short supply, scientists get the message that gun-related research is not a promising line of inquiry for furthering a career.

Rather than merely protest, the new research monitors are aiming to kill a study involving another sensitive topic, tobacco.

Message of intimidation

They were offended by research at the University of California on the role of tobacco-industry money in influencing state efforts to discourage smoking. And so, the National Cancer Institute, sponsor of the research, was directed by the House Appropriations Committee to cut off further funding. The Senate hasn't gone along with that measure. But, here, too, the message of intimidation has been delivered.

Early in the congressional session, the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., called for ending support of the social and behavioral sciences by the National Science Foundation, the financial mainstay for these disciplines. Citing plans at the foundation for a violence-research program initiated by the previous Democratic Congress, Mr. Walker denounced the concept as ''politically correct'' and unworthy of federal support.

He later backed off, saying social and behavioral research is appropriate in some circumstances. But the science foundation got the message. Far behind the original schedule, the plans for violence research are still awaiting approval.

Research on the ozone hole and on global warming also have aroused ideological hostility on Capitol Hill, where previously unattainable legitimacy has been granted to skeptics who dispute mainstream scientific concerns about these phenomena. A worldwide consensus among leading researchers holds that, though much remains unknown, enough is reliably known to warrant concern and defensive steps against the risks of ozone depletion and climatic change.

Not so, says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, who is holding a series of public hearings titled ''Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust.'' Mr. Rohrabacher is clearly in sympathy with the few researchers who contend that the risks are exaggerated and that corrective measures would entail huge, needless expenses for government and industry.

The hearings are even-handed to the extent that witnesses expressing concern and disbelief about the risks are given equal time. But the uplifting title of the congressman's inquiry masks an effort to denigrate a vast accumulation of scientific data in these fields as politically tainted.

The saving grace about ozone and climate change is that the data are so persuasive that many of the original doubters in science and industry have come to accept them and agree that corrective measures must be taken.

But for the newly triumphant gang on Capitol Hill, politics is more important than scientific truth. Whether dealing with guns, tobacco, violence or ozone, they're guided by wishful thinking and a distaste for reality. Financially vulnerable and ill-suited for political strife, science is hearing the message.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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