Rebuke to the dark age



When I read yesterday that a prominent American scientist had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her pioneering work in the field of cell biology, I stared at her name for half a minute.

Elizabeth Blackburn...Elizabeth Blackburn...Why does that name ring a bell?

I was about to take the knee-jerk research route - by using what President Bush liked to call "the Google" - when realization dawned. And all I needed to do, to verify my hunch, was dig out a very fat file. The file is entitled "Bush and Science" (an absurd pairing, I know), and deep inside, yup, there she was: Elizabeth Blackburn.

Here's what was omitted from the Nobel Prize news stories. Just for the record:

Turns out, this winner of the Nobel Prize was fired by the Bush administration back in 2004, stripped of her membership on the President's Council of Bioethics. Turns out, Blackburn was one of the early prominent casualties of the Bush team's war on science, its ongoing campaign to distort or suppress scientific evidence for its own ideological ends.

Blackburn repeatedly voiced such complaints during council meetings, as did one of her fellow appointees; the purpose of the council, after all, was to offer the president a variety of views on issues such as stem cell research. But, in February 2004, she was informed by phone that her services on the council were no longer needed. The other complainant, Dr. William May, was also fired. The Bush team offered no reasons for the firings, and said of Blackburn, "The charge that she was let go because of her policy views is utterly without merit." (And if you believe that, I have some Iraq WMDs to show you.)

Blackburn did not go quietly. She soon assailed the Bush administration in an article written for the New England Journal of Medicine: "There is a growing sense that scientific research - which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth - is being manipulated for political ends. There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of (White House) advisory bodies, and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports. As a naturalized citizen of the United States" - she was born in Australia - "I have an immigrant's love for my country. But our country must not fail us. Scientific evidence should and must be protected from the influence of politics."

And in 2007, on ABC Radio, she shared this reminiscence of Bush policymaking: "Science policy (was) being influenced by things that weren't based on scientific evidence...not taking the evidence into account...I think as scientists it sort of sticks in our throats when evidence is being ignored...If you're setting policy, it seems like there is a responsibility to get the evidence as good as you can."

The Bush team's determination to (in Blackburn's words) "mess with the evidence" and "bias the evidence" was standard operating procedure. One of my many favorite stories concerns NASA, where the agency's top scientist on climate change was ordered not to speak publicly about his speciality anymore; he was muzzled by a 24-year-old political appointee whose sole qualification for NASA work was that he had worked as a gopher on the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. This was all documented in a 2008 report by the NASA inspector general, who concluded, more broadly, that Bush's NASA had been presenting information about global warming "in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate-change science."

Meanwhile, Bush was required by law to give Congress an updated assessment of the effects of climate change; that report was required by law to be delivered in 2004. Bush ignored the deadline. Nor did he deliver such a report in 2005 or 2006 or 2007. He finally complied in the spring of 2008, and only because a court ordered him to do so. By then, of course, the integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency had long been compromised. Within the EPA, the Bush team repeatedly suppressed or dismissed valid climate change evidence in favor of industry-sponsored junk science, prompting former EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman (another reality-based casualty) to recall in 2007, "What disturbed me most was the administration's record of taking the most extreme of science - what I call the 'political science' - and giving it the same weight as the real science."

And that's precisely what Elizabeth Blackburn had been warning back in 2004. Her Nobel Prize is not only a celebration of science and what she calls "the quest for truth"; it is also a veritable rebuke to the dark age that is now blessedly dead and gone.