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  • The politics of science advice

The Bush administration has been accused of ignoring the scientific community on issues such as global warming, while the UK government's chief scientific advisor has been urged to exercise constraint in his comments on the issue. What's going on?

Last month, the chief scientific advisor to the British government, David King, gave a powerful speech to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in which he criticised the stance of the Bush administration on global warming. The speech picked up on themes that King had already expressed in an article in the journal Science, where he outlined the severity of the problems likely to be caused by global warming, and made the case for international action to prevent it, in particular by supporting the Kyoto protocol committing to targets for greenhouse-gas emissions. But he also pointed out that the United States was undermining these efforts by refusing to ratify the protocol – and seeking to justify its actions by making questionable claims about the legitimacy of the scientific arguments on which concern about global warming is based.

Although it refrained from public comment on King's remarks, the US administration cannot have been too happy with them, particularly as they came from the chief scientist of one of the few countries to have supported its position over the Iraq war. But the British government was not too pleased either. A memorandum from a senior civil servant in the cabinet office, generally believed to reflect the views of top members of the Labour government, "advised" King that he should refrain from talking to journalists during his visit to the United States (ironically the memorandum came to light, according to a report in Science, after it had been accidentally left in the press room at the AAAS meeting).

Predictably, the news of the memorandum has provoked a surge of indignation in the United Kingdom. Newspaper headlines have complained that it is outrageous for a scientist — even one acting essentially as an advisor to the government — to be "muzzled" for expressing his views, particularly on a topic on which he could legitimately be expected to speak out. After all, King has been closely involved in helping to formulate the UK government's position on climate change. And this position, which contrasts sharply with that of the United States by demanding tough government action to reduce human-induced global warming, is no secret.

What upset the UK government, however — and raises deeper issues both about the formulation of 'science advice' and the way it is perceived and used — was not a directly scientific judgement by King. Rather it was his statement in his article in Science that "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today — more serious even than the threat of terrorism".

As a personal assessment, it is one that King, like any member of a democratic society, is entitled to express. The dilemma it raises lies in the way that, coming from an individual whose professional responsibility is to offer advice that should appear to be impartial, it runs the risk of dressing up essentially subjective judgement (which King himself admitted) in a cloak of scientific credibility.

Hidden political agendas

It is precisely this practice that has recently come under fire in the United States. Last month, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists — a Boston-based pressure group that tracks issues at the interface between science, politics and the environment — published a highly critical statement on the failure of the Bush administration to pay adequate attention to science in drawing up its policies on environmental issues. The statement quoted a wide range of topics, from global warming to the health dangers of lead in paint, in which it complained that the Bush administration "has, among other abuses, suppressed and distorted scientific analysis from federal agencies, and taken actions that have undermined the quality of scientific advisory panels".

There should, of course, be little surprise about the Bush administration's position on such issues. On the one hand, any government committed to maximising the opportunities for free enterprise and minimising interference with the private sector will inevitably seek to get away with as little as it can in any sphere of regulation; environmental regulation is no exception. In addition, it is clear that the financial support provided by the oil industry to Bush and his allies in the Republican Party is being reflected in political stances that favour the industry's interests.

What is particularly upsetting to the critics, however, is the way that the administration has attempted to justify its stance by insisting that it is based on concern about the robustness of the underlying science. No one would dispute that environmental regulation should be based on 'sound science'. The disagreement arises over what this means in practice.

In the case of climate change, for example, the Bush administration is demanding greater 'certainty' over scientific conclusions (for example, that human responsibilities are responsible for global warming) before taking action. In doing so, the administration has, ironically, committed the same fault as it has criticised environmentalists for when they demand 'proof' that new products or processes present no risk to the environment. Used in this fashion, a call for 'sound science' represents, in practice, a demand that may be impossible to meet, and represents a position taken primarily for ideological reasons.

Beware of smokescreens

There is, therefore, a double need for caution when listening to the public statements made by politicians, and their advisors, on science-related issues, both in developed and developing nations. The first is to ensure that such statements are fully compatible with both current scientific knowledge, and the scientific consensus about the significance of such knowledge (unless there is a good, and explicit, reason to be sceptical of that consensus). The second, which is too often neglected, is to ensure that where an explicit reference is made to scientific arguments to justify a position or action, this is not just being used as a smokescreen for political judgements.

From this point of view, the civil servant who chastised King for his statement had some justification in doing so. And there is also merit in the suggestion that King should respond to inquiries about the relative magnitude of the threats of global warming and terrorism by describing them as 'intrinsically different', making any direct comparison 'highly questionable'. King's subsequent justification of his remarks in a radio interview by pointing to the 15,000 heat-related deaths that occurred in Europe last summer — and which he correctly points out is an order of magnitude higher than those who have died from terrorism — still runs the risk of mixing scientific and subjective judgements.

None of this detracts from two basic facts. The first is that global warming does represent one of the biggest threats to human life on this planet, particularly for those living close to the poverty line in many developing countries; King's efforts to convey this to the authorities in Washington, and indeed to the general public (including his AAAS audience) is to be applauded. The second, as last week's bomb explosions in Madrid so dramatically illustrated, is that terrorism, in all its forms, represents another such threat.

But attempts to compare the size of the two threats, and thus establish a sense of relative priority, are misguided. The challenge is to find ways of effectively challenging both — using the best available science in both contexts, but also remaining aware that at the end of the day, judgements about what needs to be done on both issues are essentially political, not scientific.

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