Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Science and today's politics

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has decided to threaten NSF-funded scientists who authored a peer-reviewed, published study on climate change that suggests that fossil fuel consumption influences global warming. Specifically, he has requested that these scientists turn over all records of their work to his committee, where (quoting Barton's letter to the director of the NSF) "The term 'records' is to be construed in the broadest sense ... whether printed or recorded electronically or magnetically or stored in any type of data bank, including, but not limited to ... summaries of personal conversations or interviews ... diaries ... checks and canceled checks ... bank statements." For more information, see the New York Times and BBC articles on the subject.

It is a huge understatement for me to say that I find this disturbing. Asking scientists to essentially open their personal financial records to him because he doesn't like their research is appalling. We all sign "conflict of interest" disclosure forms when we accept research funds - threats of congressional subpoenas are not the appropriate way for Barton to voice concerns about the objectivity of researchers! Indeed, given that Barton's campaigns through the years have been massively financed by the oil and energy industries, if anyone's objectivity should be of concern, it's not that of the scientists.

I am genuinely concerned that even writing about this in a public forum potentially puts my future funding at risk. It is only a short step from Barton's current actions to some future move to political litmus tests for research funding (i.e. Why should tax dollars go to someone who holds views contrary to those of the current administration?). To some degree this is already happening. Read this (go to the full report link (pdf) and read page 26.).

The whole point of the peer-review system is that scientists have the appropriate training to evaluate the work of other scientists! At a time when American preeminence in science and engineering is slipping (pdf), and when research funding in real dollars (let alone as a percentage of GDP) is being cut, is politicizing the process at all a smart thing to be doing?

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