“Toxic Mix – A Handbook of Science and Politics” – book introduction

HERBERT N. FOERSTEL is the former Head of Branch Libraries at the University of Maryland, board member at the National Security Archive, and former editor of Maryland Library Association’s newspaper.

His book “Toxic Mix? – A Handbook of Science And Politics” describes the state of scientific research and teaching in US after second world war. Control by military – industrial complex is followed by overt subversion of science by political and religious agenda of conservatives.

The book starts with an introduction featuring a scathing criticism of US governments after 2nd world war.

Excerpts from the concluding part of Introduction which includes a summary of chapter contents

“This brief introduction to modern science and politics demonstrates the dangerous consequences that result whenever the federal government, often allied with big business, distorts or misrepresents scientific evidence to advance a political agenda. The chapters that follow document particular fields of science that have been compromised or corrupted by political influence.

Chapter 1 examines the heavy-handed federal control of nuclear science, which has left the American public essentially ignorant of all things nuclear. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established almost total secrecy over all atomic research, introducing such bizarre concepts as “born classified,” which applied national security secrecy to scientific concepts not yet conceived. After America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan at the end of World War II, a combination of public ignorance and political hysteria cloaked nuclear research, particularly weapons research. The result was a political witch hunt of scientists who were considered insufficiently supportive of the American pro- gram to develop a new “super bomb,” the hydrogen or fusion bomb. One of these scientists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of America’s atom bomb, was actually stripped of his security clearance and denied access to the very research that he created. Chapter 1 describes the enforced ignorance of the American public on nuclear issues, which allowed the government to freely manipulate the public debate on everything from domestic weapons production to the foreign threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Chapter 2 describes the politics of aviation and space science. America was the home of humankind’s first flight, and this country dominated the air in peacetime and war until 1957, when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik orbited the earth, challenging not only America’s supremacy in space, but its Cold War politics as well. The “space race” that followed was politically motivated, and in the process science was often prostituted. The explosion of NASA’s Challenger spacecraft in 1986 shortly after liftoff is described in Chapter 2 as a failure of politics and the managerial culture, not science. Despite a scathing report from a blue-ribbon science review panel, NASA failed to learn its lessons, and the Columbia disaster soon followed.

The Reagan Administration’s “Star Wars” missile defense program, plagued to this day by technical failures and cost overruns, is also described in Chapter 2 as an unfortunate triumph of politics over science. Two decades of seemingly unlimited funding and political support in the face of scientific skepticism and technical malfunctions has characterized the “Star Wars” missile defense program.

Chapter 3 documents the uneasy role medical science has played in the raging political debate over abortion, abstinence, and family planning. The recent emergence of the “religious right” as a prominent force in American politics has produced federal policies designed to discourage, or even criminalize, abortion and family planning. This chapter reveals the medical science used to support these policies to be shoddy at best, yet federal funding has been consistently withheld from medical programs that do not comport with the political or religious views of the Bush administration. In addition, the administration has resorted to heavy-handed censorship to suppress criticism of the “abstinence- only” programs supported by religious organizations.

Chapter 4 examines what is surely the most politicized area of modern science, stem-cell research. Stem-cell research promises revolutionary cures for the most intractable maladies known to humankind, yet political opposition has left this important medical field in stagnation. On August 9, 2001, President Bush announced that federal research on stem cells would be restricted to a small number of already existing cell lines. It would soon be discovered that most of these “existing” lines were contaminated or otherwise not viable for research. As a result, American research on stem cells came to a virtual halt. In 2006, after Congress passed a bill to increase the number of stem-cell lines eligible for federal funding, President Bush vetoed it, bringing human embryonic stem-cell research to life as a political issue for federal and state candidates for office. In Missouri, Republican senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and abortion opponent, nonetheless cited the New Testament in supporting a state constitutional amendment protecting the legality of human embry- onic stem-cell research. “I find nothing in the Bible that tells me that cells in a lab dish are people,” said Danforth. “What I do find in the Gospels is an emphasis on healing—relieving people of their suffering.”21 Around the country, in state capitols and on Capitol Hill, the political battles over stem-cell research continue.

Chapter 5 presents the most publicized area of conflict between scientists and politicians: the issue of global warming. Since refusing to sign the Kyoto treaty on emissions, the Bush administration has denied the dangers of global warming and silenced officials who disagreed. The process of political denial has not only put America at odds with a global scientific consensus, but has left the federal government unprepared for domestic environmental threats such as rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms. Everything from poor design of New Orleans levees by the Army Corps of Engineers to the inadequate federal response to the Katrina disaster indicates political indifference to scientific evidence.

Because of the international threat posed by global warming, the eyes of the entire world have been focused on America’s response. Former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his effective work in bringing world attention to the threat of global warming, and he has galvanized a coalition of scientists and environmentalists in an effort to identify the human causes of climate change and reverse their effects. Chapter 5 examines this ongoing environmental struggle and the corporate and political opposition to any change that might have adverse economic effects.

Chapter 6, “The Politics of Nature,” examines the threat to our environment represented by government corruption and cultivated ignorance. The continuing pollution of our air, land, and water is documented in the context of a politicized Environmental Protection Agency. Similar threats to our wilderness and wildlife are described, particularly as the result of political manipulation of the Endangered Species Act. The work of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is documented, including its recent revelation that the Department of the Interior has “systematically distorted, manipulated, and misused the scientific process prescribed by the Endangered Species Act.”22 Such political tampering with objective environmental science has compromised America’s precious natural resources: its land, air, water, and wildlife.

Chapter 7 documents the growing public-health crisis in the United States and the reluctance of the federal government to take ameliorative action. Indeed, public-health policy in the United States may have been more disastrously politicized than any other federal area. Among the specific public-health problems examined are HIV/AIDS, smoking, and obesity. The federal government’s willingness to sacrifice public health for political purposes can be seen in the congressional testimony of America’s Surgeons General, detailed in Chapter 7. In an amazing display of scientific solidarity, the Surgeons General from both Republican and Democratic administrations told Congress of politically manipulated science by successive administrations from Reagan to Bush.

Chapter 8 presents the science and politics of evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design. While campaigning for the presidency in 1999, George W. Bush advocated the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Because creationism is, by definition, a religious concept, this would be an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, seizing on the legitimacy accorded to creationism by Bush, a group of political and religious leaders propounded the concept of “Intelligent Design,” a pseudo-scientific notion that an unspecified intelligent force must have designed the more-complex life forms on Earth.

Chapter 8 examines the landmark 2005 court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, that declared the teaching of Intelligent Design to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Because the Dover decision did not carry legal precedent outside the local school district, many state and federal officials continue to oppose the inclusion of evolution in public school science curricula or, like President Bush, insist that Intelligent Design be taught alongside evolution.

Chapter 9 examines the political exploitation of visa restrictions and export control to restrict or manipulate scientific communication. The federal government continues to use visa restrictions and export controls to prevent foreign scientists from attending conferences and speaking engagements in the United States and to restrict the number of foreign students who may attend American universities. The primary justification given for such policies is national security, including the desire to reduce so-called “technology transfer,” the process by which foreign nations, adversaries or friends, acquire unclassified scientific and technical information through the open literature or collegial exchanges. But the seemingly irrational exclusion of badly needed scientific expertise from American universities and laboratories defies any explanation other than politically stoked xenophobia.

Chapter 10 describes the political transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. The Bush administration’s frenzied, eleventh-hour administrative changes to environmental regulations are documented. President Barack Obama’s inauguration brought explicit and implicit promises of increased support for science and its integrity, and the scientific and environmental communities were quick to communicate their agendas to the new administration. Chapter 10 presents the specific recommendations of these organizations and describes the Obama administration’s response during its first year.”

A book to understand the big power politics in the world of science and technology.

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