As unlikely as it seems now, the hot political topic in the seemingly distant summer before Sept. 11, 2001, was the debate over what course President Bush would take in funding embryonic stem cell research.
After a prolonged deliberation, the president announced his decision in a rare prime-time address to the nation. He offered a compromise. Mr. Bush would not permit federal money to be used for research on new lines of stem lines, but would for existing lines.
"As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist," he said. "They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research."
Just one problem: It wasn't true that there were more 60 stem cell lines that could be used for ongoing research.
Many scientists immediately expressed doubts and protests. Those doubts were recently and definitively reconfirmed by the Council on Bioethics, the panel created by Mr. Bush in that same August 2001 speech.
"By September of 2003, slightly over two years after the enactment of the funding policy, twelve of the eligible lines had become available to federally funded researchers," the Council concluded. This isn't a narrow discrepancy: 12, not 60.
The hot political controversy in the not-so-distant winter of 2003 was whether the U.S. should invade Iraq.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, the president said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Just one problem: It wasn't true. These are the famous "16 words" the White House has since been forced to retract.
See a pattern?
From stem cells to weapons of mass destruction, this administration has what might sympathetically be called credibility issues.
All presidents, all administrations, all politicians, all columnists and, indeed, all people selectively pick and chose facts and figures to win arguments.
What's different is that the Bush administration stands accused of politicizing and bullying processes of the government that are designed to be above the fray of partisanship and ideology, such as intelligence gathering and science policy-making. Put bluntly: they don't much care about facts, science and truth.
Obviously, the great crisis of the Bush presidency has been over just this --the charge that it corrupted intelligence and the intelligence process to make a dishonest case for war in Iraq.
Much further from the headlines, similar charges have been brought against the way the agencies and advisory boards of this administration make science policy. When the policy is, say, whether the government will fund the embryonic stem cell research thought to have great potential for treating Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and spinal cord injuries, the stakes are rather high.
The seriousness of the charges increased last month when the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report called, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science." A statement signed by 60 prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, accompanied the report.
The report reached several striking conclusions. First, "There is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies." Second, "There is strong documentation of a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government's scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of advice that might run counter the administration's political agenda." Third, "There is significant evidence that the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented."
The administration's point man for responding, science adviser John Marburger, has not disputed the accuracy of the specific examples cited in the report. He admits there is a "perception" problem, but says there is no systematic or sinister policy at work.
But combined with a report by Democrats on the House Committee on Reform, there is a long roster of administration meddling, censoring and fabricating.
The flap that got the most attention was global warming. Candidate and President Bush thought the science behind climate change was shaky, putting him at odds with 99.9 percent of the world's scientists. In the summer of 2001, he pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions. After that -- only after that -- he ordered the National Academy of Sciences to review the state of climate change science. It concluded that global climate was indeed changing because of man-made factors. Too late: policy before science.
From HIV/AIDS research to mercury emissions to abstinence education, instances of scientific shenanigans abound. I'll give two more quick, lesser known examples.
From November 2002 through March 2003, the National Cancer Institute's Web site posted information that suggested there was a connection between having an abortion and getting breast cancer, a connection that has long been definitively refuted.
The political context here is that anti-abortion activists had been pushing for laws requiring doctors to counsel patients about this alleged risk. So the nation's premier clearinghouse of cancer science was putting out junk science and scare propaganda. After a flurry of congressional pique, the NCI convened a three-day conference of experts and pulled the erroneous information on March 21.
The government often relies on counsel from appointed advisory committees on technical science and health issues. One of them is the Center for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention.
The committee was considering setting more stringent standards of permissible blood levels for lead in children because of new evidence that even lower levels could be harmful.
A few weeks before the scheduled meeting, the CDC's controlling cabinet agency, HHS, bumped from the committee a pediatrician and researcher who had served for four years and two new nominees selected by CDC. In their place, HHS nominated three people with ties to the lead and paint industry. One of them wanted to raise permissible lead levels to two-and-a-half times what they were set at in the 1970's. All three are now on the committee.
The problem will continue. Since the UCS report was written, two more controversies emerged. In one, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson admitted, "there was a mistake made" when his department altered a report documenting racial and ethnic disparities in health care to put a more upbeat face on it, papering over the original conclusion that minorities "tend to be in poorer health than other Americans."
In the other, two members of the President's Council on Bioethics who supported research on stem cells and therapeutic cloning, and thus were in the minority, were pulled off the panel, one by choice, one not. People whose views will put them firmly into the panel's majority will replace them.
None of this will come as a great surprise in light of what we now know about how the administration manipulated intelligence about Iraq. But it is chilling to realize that the arrogance and deception that went into the most important action of the Bush presidency also infect their system down to obscure science boards and policies.
Certain functions of government, much like the judicial system, are supposed to be insulated to as much as possible from partisanship and politics. This administration seems to have a pervasive and profound scorn for that idea. In its place, it has an abiding confidence in its own righteousness. And in this, President Bush leads by example.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer
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