Today we are facing a full-fledged national crisis over the role of scientific information in public policy-making. It's a subtle crisis in some ways, often obscured by the complexities of scientific disputation. But it is a crisis nonetheless, one that threatens every one of us because it affects not only public health and the environment, but the way we treat knowledge itself in American society.

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The crisis is a direct consequence of continuing, and well-documented, misuses and distortions of scientific information by the Bush administration, on issues ranging from global climate change to embryonic stem-cell research. The extensiveness of the administration's abuses, combined with the fact that it refuses to acknowledge or apologize for its offenses, leaves us with a deep conundrum:

How do we ensure that scientific knowledge and expertise play an appropriate role in helping to inform national policy decisions? And what are the consequences when one ideological movement, or one presidential administration, or one political party, shows a systematic willingness to undermine, misappropriate and abuse scientific and technical expertise?

This is a question that cuts to the heart of the role of science in a democracy. None other than George W. Bush himself may have put it best when he declared, with a deer-in-the-headlights look during his first public appearance following the Asian tsunami catastrophe, "I am not a geologist, as you know."

Although I suspect that Bush's wisdom here is merely accidental, he's really on to something. For while we don't generally want our elected leaders to be scientists -- Israel's 1952 offer of the presidency to Albert Einstein being an exception to the rule -- we do want the two camps to communicate honestly and forthrightly.

In essence, then, the much-discussed "politicization of science" really amounts to a strategic attack of the necessary channels of communication between technocratic experts, who know a great deal about the workings of nature, and democratically elected leaders who must often tap into technocratic knowledge if they are to guide us wisely.

Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the once cooperative relationship between scientists and our political leaders has thoroughly deteriorated. Many scientists feel they have received the back of the hand from this administration -- and not just when it comes to the requests for funding of basic research in Bush's budget.

Far more outrageous are the following: Reports of a former oil industry employee editing climate change reports from the White House. The president lending his endorsement to the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" alongside evolution in public school science classes. The resignation of a senior Food and Drug Administration expert due to continual politicking over the approval of Plan B emergency contraception (the "morning after" pill) over the counter. (On Friday, the head of the FDA, Lester Crawford, resigned abruptly; the fallout over the Plan B episode was likely part of the reason.)

And these are just the most prominent case studies from the past several months. Choose a different time period and you will have a different set of examples--and that's precisely the point. Science is being used repeatedly as a political football by the Bush administration, and the particular issue almost doesn't matter -- so long as it's of consequence to some interest group that the administration is committed to appeasing.

The most prominent such interest groups are religious conservatives and regulated industry. These two interest groups want very different things -- economics, morals -- but their desires frequently stray into scientific areas. For instance, religious conservatives want to challenge the way that evolution is taught in public schools, while business interests such as tobacco want (or at least, wanted) to challenge scientific studies suggesting health risks from smoking.

Catering to these constituencies, as the Republican Party has increasingly done, has inevitably led politicians and political appointees to humor what essentially amounts to their scientific lobbying. This has happened even as such lobbying has itself become state of the art, encompassing think-tank driven campaigns that skew what's actually known on hot-button scientific issues with big political ramifications, such as evolution and especially global warming. Both of these trends have converged under the Bush administration, a fact that goes a long way towards explaining the current crisis over the politicization of science.

Indeed, there are many good reasons for thinking that, although all politicians to some extent use science selectively, the Bush administration is significantly different than other administrations when it comes to the cavalier treatment of science--and that, in fact, it's much worse.

First, we have the testimonials from individuals who actually served in these previous administrations: For example, former Nixon and Ford administration Environmental Protection Agency administrator Russell Train, himself a Republican. These people say they've never seen anything like what we're seeing now, and that's one powerful piece of evidence.

We also have the simple fact that no similarly broad-ranging crisis over the political abuse of science arose during previous administrations. While the relationship between science and politics did become contentious during other presidencies, the tension generally arose over specific issues, such as the "Star Wars" program during the Reagan years, rather than over the government's entire approach to science across a sweeping array of issues.

Now, thanks to all of these tactics and abuses, and the political structure that has grown up to support them, we are facing a crisis.

Unfortunately, it's a crisis that's only recognized by one side of the political spectrum, which has now begun to call for good government-style reforms, designed to safeguard the role of legitimate scientific expertise in informing government decision-making, to protect that expertise from manipulation and abuse, and more generally to restore a spirit of candor and collaboration between the scientific community and our elected officials.

For example, Reps. Henry Waxman and Bart Gordon have proposed legislation to bar political litmus tests for advisory committee membership, extend whistleblower protections to government scientists who allege abuses, and much else.

Such reforms should be coupled with attempts to restore the government scientific advisory apparatus itself: Bring back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, dismantled by the Gingrich Republicans, and strengthen the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

But still, that's not enough. Scientists need to continue to fight back against misuses of science, and that includes getting into the trenches and battling those who would spread nonsense to our children in schools. The university community in this nation, too, needs to band together to defend the integrity of science, something we haven't seen happen yet.

There ought to be a scientific integrity movement on campuses, a natural venue for defending the scientific process and the value of inquiry.

Ultimately, all of this energy should translate into political action itself: If conservative Republicans have a bad record on science, we need to call them out on their abuses and support candidates (Democrat or Republican) with better records.

In the long term, all of these strategies must combine if we are to reverse the trend of science abuse and restore scientific integrity to the political process and to society at large.