A small exchange at a House subcommittee hearing this past Tuesday provided the occasion for a useful lesson about the proper relationship between science and politics. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was one of several government witnesses. Representative Andy Harris (R., Md.) grilled Dr. Collins about a politically contentious paper that purports to link the Tea Party with the tobacco industry — a paper that was published with support from the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health).
The paper is, at best, mediocre muckraking, and despite being published in a peer-reviewed journal, it does not rise even to the level of shoddy science. Its authors, three members of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, arrived at the supposedly scientific conclusion that “the Tea Party has been influenced by decades of astroturfing by tobacco and other corporate interests.” Unsurprisingly, commentators on the left were delighted to find an academic study — peer-reviewed, no less! — to give a gloss of science to their partisan opinions about those with whom they disagree. Also unsurprisingly, tea-party spokesmen voiced more skepticism about the paper’s findings. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups profiled in the paper, told Fox News, “If you’re going to have a conspiracy theory, at least try to make it pass the laugh test.”
Dr. Collins, for his part, said that he was “quite troubled” by the paper’s contents, but he dodged Representative Harris’s question about what methods the NIH has in place to prevent the agency, which funds medical research to the tune of $32 billion per year, from financing papers that advance partisan political agendas rather than presenting genuine medical research. Dr. Collins claimed that the nature of this paper came as a surprise to the NIH as well, and he noted that it included a disclaimer, which says that the NIH “played no role in the selection of the research topic, conduct of the research, or preparation of the manuscript.” (Video of the exchange is available here at 01:52:30.)
Dr. Collins rightly pointed out that the NIH cannot be a “nanny” presiding over the work of every grant recipient. But it’s disturbing that the NIH was not aware that grant recipients were using its medical-research dollars to finance partisan hackery. In a time of budgetary constraints, grant-making agencies need to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
But this particular scandal is about more than the wasting of taxpayer dollars on frivolous research. It is also about the misuse of science for partisan political purposes, which corrupts both our political and our scientific institutions.
In fact, Dr. Collins and the NIH should not have been surprised by the political nature of this anti–Tea Party paper. Stanton Glantz, the paper’s senior author, toldScience Insider that he was “very troubled” by Collins’s remarks and said that he had not hidden his intentions when he was writing the grant requests to support this research. He’s right: His grant proposal makes clear that his work had a political agenda from the outset.
In his proposal, Glantz referred to the tobacco industry as a “vector” of disease (a term normally used to describe an animal that transmits infections, such as a mosquito that carries malaria) and compared tobacco companies to bacteria. He proposed to conduct research to gain a better understanding of how this disease vector “maintains a social and policy environment favorable to smoking” and, more specifically, to gain an understanding of the tobacco industry’s “strategies to influence the conduct, interpretation, and dissemination of science and how the industry has used these strategies to oppose tobacco control policies.” He also proposed to “analyze evolving tobacco industry strategies to oppose tobacco control policies at the local, state, and international level.” In other words, he was applying for an NIH grant to study the politics of tobacco-industry regulation, not to study the effects of smoking on health.
The kind of politicized “science” on display in Glantz’s paper is distinct from what we normally talk about when we talk about “politicized science.” That term usually refers to scientific claims that are distorted or exaggerated, by either scientists or politicians, to support some preferred policy. This year’s State of the Union speech had a classic example of this kind of politicized science when the president said that it was the “overwhelming judgment of science” that Superstorm Sandy and other recent extreme-weather events were caused by climate change. (Not so.) Another good example is the pseudoscience purveyed by the notorious Tobacco Institute (an entity dissolved in 1998 following the tobacco settlement), such as the “research” trying to cast doubt on the epidemiological science that links smoking to cancer and other diseases. This sort of politicization of science is a serious and complicated problem, because having reliable and objective scientific advice is essential for policymaking.
In the case of the Glantz paper, however, scientists are not distorting scientific claims to support their policy preferences. This paper does not make anything resembling a scientific claim that would be relevant to policy decisions about tobacco regulation. And even if it were true that tea-party organizations were “astroturf” laid down by the tobacco-industry lobby, that in itself would not be a reason to enact any tobacco-control policies. Instead of offering evidence to support their preferred policy positions, Glantz and his co-authors make insinuations about political groups they oppose in order to cast these groups in an unfavorable light.
They even imply that the Tea Party’s advocacy for “private property rights, consumer choice, and limited government” merely echoes “tobacco industry arguments.” Private-property rights and limited government are certainly very important principles for the Tea Party, and a strong commitment to them does stand in the way of the extensive regulations that tobacco-control advocates would like to see enacted. But that does not mean that these principles are mere rhetorical devices utilized to advance corporate interests — indeed, these principles are at the core of Western democracy.
Tobacco regulation is only a tiny part of the range of issues that tea-party organizations and activists aim to address. (Indeed, most tea-partiers probably think about smoking regulation only as part of their broader concerns about the nanny state.) There is tension between our commitment to liberal democratic principles and our desire to protect health; resolving this tension may be a defining challenge for this country in the decades to come, and scientists have a crucial role to play in assessing how different policies can provide public-health benefits. But attempting to attack or undermine the liberal-democratic principles that stand in the way of enacting public-health policies does a disservice both to science and to politics.