Sunday, June 26, 2011

National news: The War on Science

Sometimes a spin through the morning papers just brings you up cold. Here's the top story* from Sunday's Anchorage Daily News:

Another department in the Parnell administration is applying a political and policy test to the work that its scientists and researchers are permitted to do.

This time, the rule affects public health and governs manuscripts, data presentations and "ideas" that could lead to publications. The rule was issued June 10 as an internal policy and procedure by Dr. Ward Hurlburt, the state's director of public health and its chief medical officer.

That sounds disconcerting. What do you suppose it means in real life?

Hurlburt said the rule was designed to improve the quality of the division's publications and research, not censor them. But he also acknowledged "the reality" that the Parnell administration's social-conservative policies on some issues, such as its opposition to abortion, could influence the work of his department.

A similar rule was issued last year for biologists and other scientists who work for the Department of Fish and Game. That rule led to the expulsion in April of two state scientists from a federal endangered species panel attempting to restore the depleted population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet. The scientists were removed over concerns that they could no longer work objectively, since state policy asserts Cook Inlet belugas aren't facing extinction.

The fish and game rule requires scientists to adhere to established policy if they work outside the department, such as serving on a panel or reviewing an article for publication in a scientific journal. It says that internal debates within the department should remain open.

So if I'm reviewing for a journal and some hapless author says the Earth is three bazillion years old, I'm supposed to reject it and demand more "Flintstones" in the lit review? That'll put you right off your fresh-fried lobster.

I'd like to know more: what other departments is this decision likely to creep into? Who's trying to do something about it? Who's taking notes in (or funneling money to) other states? But it's really dumb luck that I know anything at all; I don't usually look at the Alaska papers when scrolling Today's Front Pages, and today I did, and there it was.

The story hasn't been widely circulated. An AP pickup has gotten a little play, and the ADN version has reached Tacoma, but I can't find the story at the McClatchy Washburo site -- though there's a three-week-old piece by the same reporter about the Fish and Game matter. That's kind of a shame, because in case you'd missed it, there's a War on Science going on. The bad guys have their own media outlets and their own legislators and their own bogus atrocities. We should assume they mean business. (The "left agenda" in science reporting, on the other hand, is still represented thus: "A quick Internet search reveals that fluoride has many opponents touting their own research.")

Now, it's not like member papers' stories aren't reaching other papers."Mob memories personal for women related to gangsters" seems to have already made it from Miami to Sacramento and Bellingham. And it's not like McClatchy papers don't have room for national news, as long as it's Cheerios' birthday or something of similar moment. So you'd hope the papers in Kansas, Texas and Florida -- to name a few states that apparently wouldn't mind going all Vichy in the War on Science -- would kind of be stepping to the forefront here. Who knows? People might decide they need to pay attention.

* The online hed makes more sense: "Political test may apply to health research."

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