Science Interviews

Interview

Sat, 7th Oct 2006

Science Idol

Dr Michael Halpern, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington DC

Part of the show How Cancers Form, Cancer Biology and Future Therapies

Chris - Now you've all heard of Pop Idol, but now meet the scientific equivalent. It's called Science Idol but it's not scientists strutting around with microphones, so much as pens and pencils. The aim of this competition is to produce a cartoon that will highlight how politicians in America are attempting to distort the conclusions and suppress the results reached by US scientists on issues about things like climate change and pollution. In all over 400 scientists and artists have put pen to paper, and joining us now from the Union of Concerned Scientists to tell us more is Michael Halpern. Why did you need to set this competition up?

Michael - We thought it would be a good idea to set a competition up like this because just like the Ignobel prize, you have the opportunity to laugh at political interference in science and learn a little bit about how important is to decisions.

Chris - But are politicians really meddling in science? Do you believe that?

Michael - We've seen that happen a lot in recent years. The people that lead scientific agencies here in the United States like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centre for Disease Control have increasingly inserted themselves into the scientific process. I can give you a couple of examples. First of all, climate change. The Bush administration has consistently tried to downplay the threat of global warming and as a result, they've prevented scientists from talking to the press about potential links between hurricane strength and global warming.

Chris - How would you do that though? How would you stop scientists talking to the press? You're talking to us for example. How would they try and stifle the dissemination of the information?

Michael - These scientists that work for federal agencies work under a different set of rules and they are required to only speak to the press when they're allowed to by their superiors, by the political appointees, who are their bosses. If the political appointees don't like what they're going to say, they can tell the scientists not to talk. If the scientists talk then they risk getting fired.

Chris - Now obviously the UK often stands shoulder to shoulder with America. Do you think the same thing is happening here and further afield?

Michael - We haven't done any investigations into what's happening in the UK, but we do know that any sort of interference in the scientific process hurts the way science is done and decreases our capacity to respond to important and complex environmental and health problems.

Chris - Now whilst setting up a cartoon competition is a good way to raise awareness, is making light of the situation when it's actually quite serious the best approach?

Michael - I think it is a very good approach because it allows people to approach the issue in a very accessible way. They see a cartoon and the cartoon pretty much says everything about the issue. Once you've been introduced to the issue then you can really learn a lot more about it.

Chris - I'm just having a look at the winning entry and it's quite funny. It's got a scientist with his pen and pencil in his laboratory and it's got a politician or a bureaucrat holding a grant form. The politician is saying 'you're completely free to carry whatever research you want, as long as you come to these conclusions. This sounds like the mantra from Ford: you can have any colour you want as long as it's black.

Michael - Right, exactly. This is obviously an obsurd sort of practice. Scientists need to come to whatever conclusions the science says, not what the political appointees tell them to do. The artist who drew this cartoon, once he'd one the contest, started getting phone calls and emails from other scientists at his university saying that this is exactly how I feel sometimes and I'm not really allowed to do the research that I want to do.

Chris - So Michael, once you've got your press coverage and people are aware of the situation, how are you going to execute a change, so politicians stop meddling and scientists in America and probably elsewhere are going to stop getting this degree of interference?

Michael - That's a very good question. It's a tough problem to deal with and what we've done is brought a lot of scientists to meet with members of congress and other politicians here in Washington DC to talk about the problem and to educate their members of congress about how important it is to keep the state scientific progress free and unfettered. So we're promoting more protection for scientists in the federal government to be able to publish and speak about their research and just a better way for decision makers to access scientific advice.

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