The provision, inserted by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, represents a tiny victory for critics of the Bush administration, who have become increasingly angry about what they see as the White House's misuse and abuse of science. They charge that the federal government widely dismisses or ignores scientific evidence or even, as one detractor puts it, manufactures uncertainty when the evidence challenges administration positions. Backers hope that, as the first legislation of its kind, the Durbin amendment will lead to broader efforts to regulate the use of science in this and future administrations.
When he introduced the provision, Dur?bin pointed to the example of William R. Miller, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of New Mexico who was denied a position on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse after he said he had not voted for George W. Bush. "When the federal government seeks expert technical advice, it should look for the best possible expertise," Durbin said at the time. "It shouldn't limit itself to only those experts who voted for a particular candidate or who agree with the president's policy agenda."
Theoretically, the amendment outlaws the kind of activity that disturbs Durbin. "It basically says no one is allowed to ignore science for political purposes," says a Dur?bin staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity. But "the thing that's disappointing about the amendment is that it doesn't have any enforcement." That is, the department legally cannot violate the provision, but if it does--nothing happens. The amendment, therefore, is likely to have little effect. Nevertheless, Durbin and others see it as an important symbolic step.
The White House did not return calls seeking comment. But the administration did issue a lengthy response when this legislation was introduced. John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, stated then that the administration is "applying the highest scientific standards in decision-making" and that "the accusation of a litmus test that must be met before someone can serve on an advisory panel is preposterous." Marburger himself was appointed to his post despite being "a lifelong Democrat," he said.
With regard to the Miller case, Marburger argued that the National Institute on Drug Abuse had rejected Miller's appointment to the advisory panel on professional grounds, not for political reasons. Such incidents cited by critics represent only a few isolated cases among some 600 scientific committees in the Bush administration, he emphasized. And one of the most important science officials did not experience any meddling: at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, Rita Colwell, who headed the National Science Foundation until 2004, said she had not come under any political pressure during her tenure.
Some of the administration's defenders point out that science and politics have always been strained bedfellows. This administration, they insist, is being unfairly singled out for criticism.
Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University who investigates the use of science in the federal government, disagrees. "Something different is going on in the Bush administration," she claims. Part of the problem is that it attempts to create controversy where none exists. "No matter how good the science is on anything, you can manufacture uncertainty," she says, citing the case of the Environmental Protection Agency giving undue weight to industry studies that question the herbicide atrazine's link to cancer.