The Year in Science: Politics

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Harvard President Inadvertently Mobilizes Women in Science

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers told a gathering of academic diversity experts last January that he wanted to make "some attempts at provocation." He certainly pulled that off, delivering what may have been the most controversial speech of the year. He tried to explain why women are "significantly underrepresented" in science and engineering faculty positions by arguing, in part, that there are "systematic differences" between the sexes. "It does appear," he said, "that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability . . . there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population."

Summers's remarks touched off a firestorm of criticism. "There isn't any evidence of a genetic difference," says University of Wisconsin microbiologist Jo Handelsman, "and there's no difference in aptitude for successful science careers that can be measured." MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who has researched and written about women in science for many years, said she walked out on the speech. "I just couldn't breathe," she told an interviewer, "because this kind of bias makes me physically ill." Within days the speech had been widely covered in the media. The words "Larry Summers" immediately became shorthand for "bias against women."

"I think when you are the president of Harvard University, you are a leader of American education," Hopkins told NBC. "Fifty percent of your students are women. And if the president doesn't think those women have the aptitude to get to the top, that's deeply concerning."

Over the months that followed, Summers faced a nonbinding vote of no confidence from the school's faculty and issued more than one apology. "I suppose I've done my part over the last several months to increase interest in these topics. I wish that interest in these topics had been increased in a somewhat different fashion," he said in April. "But I believe that with the focus that now exists on these topics, we have an opportunity to do some things at Harvard that are truly important."

Ironically, Summers's comments may have had a positive effect. In the long run, says Virginia Valian, codirector of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College in New York City and author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, "Summers turned out to be a 'stealth gender-equity proponent.' " One of the most positive consequences, she says, was the impact it had on women. "There is not a woman scientist on the face of the globe who did not hear of President Summers's remarks, and it was galvanizing to these women," Valian says. "They want to make a world where that's not going to happen anymore."

Summers's speech led to specific changes. Harvard committed $50 million to recruit and retain qualified women. It had to be more than coincidence that about half of the National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Awards—for interesting, creative, and potentially career-risky science—went to women this year because in 2004 all the winners were men. And numerous studies looking into gender differences were published, launched, or revisited.

In August, for example, the journal Science printed a study showing that increasingly large numbers of women have been earning doctoral degrees in virtually every scientific discipline for many years but are still not proportionally represented on university faculties. The study said women professors lack sufficient female role models, may encounter a chilly campus climate, often meet unconscious bias (from both men and women), and, when they are primary child caregivers, can face problems balancing work and family—all issues raised by Summers in subsequent speeches.

Many schools had been working on the problem, but in the wake of Summers's speech, Harvard is expected to take a lead role. "Nothing's happened yet because it's too early," says Valian. "Harvard can start having a major influence on the careers of women in science and in academia in general if it makes real changes over the next five years. That is when its influence will make itself felt." —Sarah Webb 

Bush Administration's Moral Mandates Curtail AIDS Relief

In 2003 President Bush promised unprecedented anti-AIDS funding—with a catch. His five-year $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief included a clause requiring that any organizations receiving U.S. money "must have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking." The clause, which applies to overseas groups (and arguably to domestic organizations working in foreign lands), set off a furious debate on free speech that came to a head this year. In May the Brazilian government, rejecting the controversial clause, turned down $40 million in American AIDS funding. And in August a nonprofit group filed a lawsuit against the government, saying it is "coercing speech" from private organizations.

Administration officials are quick to defend the policy. "Nothing in U.S. law or Emergency Plan policy prohibits the U.S. government or any of our partners from providing services to high-risk populations, including women in prostitution," says Mark Dybul, deputy U.S. global AIDS coordinator. "Under the Emergency Plan, we treat all people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS with dignity and compassion."

Critics contend the clause undermines efforts to curtail the AIDS epidemic among high-risk sex workers. "This pledge jeopardizes the credibility and trust that these organizations have worked really hard to get," says Judith Auerbach, vice president for public policy at the American Foundation for AIDS Research. And the antiprostitution pledge, she adds, is only one in a growing list of conditions the government is imposing on public-health organizations. For instance, a global gag rule mandates that groups getting U.S. funds cannot provide counseling or referrals for abortion services. "If you want government resources, you're increasingly being asked to toe the party line," Auerbach says. "It's an ideological agenda that's really based on a religious agenda superseding public health and science." —Apoorva Mandavilli

Government Tries to Squelch Alert on Milk Terror Threat

The scenario is frightening: One gram of botulinum toxin released into the nation's milk supply would kill 50,000 people. That possibility was laid out in a controversial paper published in July by the National Academy of Sciences. It demonstrates the dairy industry's susceptibility to a bioterrorism attack—and presses for early detection measures. "This is not just about botulinum in milk," says Lawrence Wein, professor of management science at Stanford University's business school and coauthor of the report. "It's about moving the food industry from food safety, which they're good at, to food security, which they really haven't even addressed."

U.S. officials expressed displeasure. Stewart Simonson, an assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to the academy to ask that the paper not be published, calling it "a road map for terrorists." After debate, the journal published the paper anyway. In an accompanying editorial, Bruce Alberts, the academy's former president, said, "We are convinced that the guidance offered in this article on how to anticipate, model, and minimize a botulinum- toxin attack can be valuable for biodefense." Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, says: "Everything that's not classified should be public. I'm not saying we should tell terrorists every damn thing, but we also need academic and scientific freedom."  —Richard Morgan

U.S. Losing the Science Race

Science and engineering in the United States are in dangerous decline—and the country needs a concentrated effort to reverse the trend. That was the conclusion of a 20-member panel of the National Academies in October. "America today faces a serious and intensifying challenge with regard to its future competitiveness and standard of living," said panel chairman Norman Augustine, retired Lockheed Martin chairman. "Further, we appear to be on a losing path."

The performance of U.S. students in middle and high schools on international math and science exams is below the average of 38 other countries. Even advanced American math and physics students score near dead last among students in 20 tested countries, the panel reported. Since 1990 the number of bachelor's degrees in engineering has declined 8 percent; in mathematics, 20 percent. While 32 percent of U.S. students graduate with degrees in science and engineering, the figure in China is 59 percent.

Fewer grads means less research. Science Watch, a review of the Web research tool Essential Science Indicators, found a decline in U.S. representation among the world's published scientific papers, dropping from 38.5 percent in 1990 to 33.3 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the Asian-Pacific share increased and "will likely outstrip that of the United States in six or seven years." Such declines may be reflected in the business of science; the National Academies reported the U.S. share of global high-tech exports fell during the last two decades from 30 to 17 percent, and its share of manufactured goods dropped from 33 billion in 1990 to 24 billion in 2004.

What to do? The panel proposed a $10 billion to $20 billion solution. It includes offering scholarships to draw top students into teaching math, science, engineering, and technology. The brightest young researchers should receive new grants worth $500,000 each. Overall, the panel said, the United States should increase investment in basic research by 10 percent annually for seven years.  —Bruce Stutz

Deception Plagues Medical Research

A study published in June found that an alarming percentage of medical research is not only untrustworthy but also downright deceitful. HealthPartners Research Foundation and the University of Minnesota surveyed several thousand scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health, and a third of the respondents anonymously admitted to one of 10 serious ethical lapses, such as fabricating data or plagiarizing.

Even more common, says Melissa Anderson, a University of Minnesota higher education researcher, were minor misbehaviors like dropping conflicting data or withholding results. Anderson thinks these deceptive practices may stem from scientists' perceptions that they are not being treated fairly when it comes to receiving grants or getting proper credit. "Science is built on a highly competitive system that relies heavily on junior people," says Anderson. "There may be structural inequities in the way we've built the system that increase junior scientists' sense of organizational injustice."  —Zach Zorich

Bush vs. Science: Round Five Jabs

Another year, another round of accusations that the Bush administration is politicizing science. Despite administration denials, the voices from the scientific community this year were louder, the charges more acrimonious. The anger was spurred largely by news stories of questionable decisions—or deception. Some examples:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency: Career scientists said they were pressured by political appointees to ignore or omit research that ran counter to President George W. Bush's plan to slow the reduction of mercury pollution at coal-burning power plants. The Government Accountability Office later confirmed the scientists' claims.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: In a survey, the Union of Concerned Scientists found 128 of 291 scientists had been told to refrain from making findings that would require further protections of wildlife and vegetation.
  • The White House: In June The New York Times reported that an administration official, who had previously  worked as an oil industry lobbyist opposing limits on greenhouse gases, edited federal climate-change reports to minimize connections between gas emissions and global warming. The official resigned.

Administration officials rejected most criticism. "President Bush believes policies should be made with the best and most complete information possible and expects his administration to conduct its business with integrity and in a way that fulfills that belief," said Dr. John Marburger, the president's science adviser. "I can attest from my personal experience and direct knowledge that this administration is implementing the president's policy of strongly supporting science and applying the highest scientific standards in decision making."  —Kurt Repanshek

Intelligent Designers Tested in Pennsylvania 

Dover, Pennsylvania (population 1,914), is not the sort of town in which scientific theories are routinely tested. But in September the rural community, 25 miles south of Harrisburg, became a pivotal battleground in the long war between Darwinism and its doubters. Like the famous Scopes "monkey trial" 80 years earlier, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District revolved around the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. There was a new twist, however: In Dover, the anti-Darwinists denied that they were motivated by religion. Instead, they championed what they called an alternative theory of evolution—a hypothesis known as intelligent design.

At first glance, intelligent design looks like the same argument that evolution's foes have made since 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species: Only a divine intelligence could have created something as complex as life on Earth. Although nearly all scientists accept Darwin's theory of random mutation and natural selection (which is supported by the fossil record and by a wealth of evidence in fields as diverse as geology, genetics, and astronomy), polls show that about 45 percent of Americans still believe in the biblical account of how life arose. In the 1960s some began calling their doctrine creation science and demanding that its concepts—for example, that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah's flood—be given equal time in school curricula. After the U.S. Supreme Court nixed that idea in 1987, citing the constitutional ban on establishing a state religion clause, creationist thinkers came up with a subtler tactic: Dis Darwinism without mentioning God.

Intelligent design never names the designer; presumably, students will figure that out for themselves.

As a scientific theory, intelligent design lacks certain basics. "One requirement of science is that it makes specific predictions, which can be tested in a laboratory," notes geologist Robert Hazen, author of Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin. "Another requirement is that it doesn't rely on supernatural or miraculous processes." Yet this stealth version of creationism is far more sophisticated than its predecessors, thanks largely to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that aims, according to a fund-raising pitch, to replace "the stifling dominance of the materialist world view" with "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

Since 1996, the institute's Center for Science and Culture has awarded $3.6 million in grants to 50 or so researchers. Many of them agree that minor evolutionary changes may have occurred by Darwinian means. But they argue that certain features of living things—the eye, for instance, or the bacterial flagellum—are irreducibly complex and could not have developed gradually by trial and error. As one grantee, mathematician-theologian William Dembski, writes in his book The Design Revolution: "There are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence." The probability of such systems occurring by chance, he calculates, is less than 1 in 10150.

The stage for the courtroom confrontation was set in October 2004, when the Dover school board voted 6 to 3 to require ninth-grade biology students to listen to a brief disclaimer asserting that "Darwin's theory is a theory . . . not a fact" and that "Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view." The statement recommended an intelligent design textbook, Of Pandas and People, available in the school library. Dover High School's science teachers balked at the order, and 11 parents filed suit against the board for trying to impose religion on their kids. In August President Bush backed the board, saying, "Both sides ought to be properly taught" so that students could "understand what the debate is about."

Oddly, the Discovery Institute seemed to take both sides. It criticized the school board's action and two of its expert witnesses withdrew. But it did supply a third witness and filed a supporting brief. "We oppose any effort to require students to learn about intelligent design," senior fellow John G. West told The New York Times. Instead, the institute advocates "teaching the controversy"—a legally safer approach, in which schools present Darwinism as controversial without endorsing intelligent design.

The fight is not likely to end with Dover: Across the country, school systems are embroiled in more than 80 struggles over evolution. In January 2005, a federal judge ordered officials in Cobb County, Georgia, to remove stickers questioning Darwinism from textbooks; in May, the Kansas board of education began deliberating on whether to include the "controversy" in state science curricula. The issue goes beyond Darwin. "If intelligent design is injected into the classroom by political means, it will be the first step towards a complete politicization of everything in science," says Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God, who testified for the Dover plaintiffs. "Nothing could be worse."  —Kenneth M. Miller

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