- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sen. John Kerry recently accused President Bush of putting ideology over science and echoed charges made by a cadre of liberally active scientists. Unfortunately, those accusations conceal what should be a debate on the policy choices of ambiguous and difficult data.

On Monday, Mr. Kerry promised to “lift the barriers that stand in the way of stem cell research” and issued a statement accusing the administration of minimizing the threat of global warming and altering an assessment of the harm that might be caused by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Mr. Kerry also endorsed a letter signed by almost 50 Nobel laureates, who charged that the administration had “reduced funding for scientific research” and was “ignoring scientific consensus” on issues like global warming.

Scenarios of the potential impact of environmental changes usually are based on uncertain and sometimes highly ambiguous data. As a consequence, their outputs usually have a high degree of uncertainty, forcing policy-makers to chose between potential gains and potential losses. In the case of the ANWR, the question is not if drilling would have an impact, but rather how great an impact would be acceptable for the energy that might be extracted. In the case of global warming, the question is which strategies would be most effective toward mitigating a threat whose scale is highly uncertain. Even advocates admit the Kyoto Protocol is a poor policy tool.

Mr. Kerry claims that Mr. Bush “stands in the way of stem cell research.” However, as Sen. Bill Frist noted on Fox News Sunday, “The president of the United States funds stem cell research. He’s the first president to do that … The real issue is how strongly you feel about the human embryo.” Mr. Bush feels that human embryos have such stature that taxpayer dollars should not be spent to destroy them. Mr. Kerry disagrees, but the issue is not one of science, but of ethics.

Mr. Bush does not appear to have short-changed science. Total federal spending on research and development has increased by 44 percent — from $91 billion in fiscal 2001 to $132 billion in fiscal 2005 — according to the administration. Moreover, the Jan. 19 cover story of Time Europe, “Plugging Europe’s Brain Drain,” claimed that European brains are draining to the United States. The second paragraph said, “All over the U.S… . research facilities are teeming with bright, young Europeans, lured by America’s generous funding, better facilities and meritocratic culture.” And Asian nations — particularly China — are devoting significant resources to emulate America’s success in science.

Yet the debate is not one of science versus ignorance, as Mr. Kerry has characterized it, but one of policy differences based on problematic data. That debate should be a part of the presidential campaign. But it will not happen until Mr. Kerry argues from sound science instead of soundbites.

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