Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Political Science

The Bush administration has drawn a lot of fire from Capitol Hill and elsewhere for allegedly politicizing science, by tailoring the facts to meet the policy on everything from climate change to endangered species. But there’s a lot of politics behind the allegations as well. Such critiques naively assume that all government researchers and bureaucrats are politically-disinterested parties, who wouldn’t conceivably tailor ambiguous (or non-existent) scientific data to advance personal or bureaucratic agendas. Everyone else is tainted by ideology, self-interest and ego; only public servants are as pure as priests.

Except we all now know priests aren’t so pure.

The institutional inclinations of federal regulatory agencies -- guided as they are by the precautionary principle and run as they are by ambitious bureaucrats -- is to regulate first, worry about the definitive science later, which puts them at odds with any administration that's reluctant to regulate based on flimsy or sensationalist suppositions. A few federal bureaucrats and scientists – NASA’s James Hansen most notably – have become famous bucking the Bush administration, shouting to the rooftops that they’re being silenced. Another of these is former associate deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Jason Burnett, whose own political motivations are revealed in this Los Angeles Times story.

Federal employees are entitled to have their personal ideologies and agendas – outside the workplace. Where this becomes a problem is when these insiders, instead of exercising professional discipline and permitting elected policy-makers to set the agenda, decide to “go public” with their complaints about administration policy, while still collecting a paycheck and pension from Uncle Sam. These freelancers are typically frustrated in the humble role of policy-implementer, and secretly want to be a policy-makers. They just don’t want to go to the trouble of getting elected.

Burnett, to his credit, left the EPA (though I’m sure he waited long enough to qualify for a gold-plated federal pension), but not before airing his differences in a way that was designed to discredit his former boss, the president – and meant to ingratiate himself with Bush-bashing organizations on the outside, with an eye toward future job prospects. There's almost always an element of opportunism in such cases. Perhaps Burnett hopes to land a plumb job with the Obama administration as a reward for his grandstanding.

But even a President Obama will want appointees and agency staff who have the discipline and professionalism to follow policy directives, not buck those they personally disagree with. He'll want (and deserve) subordinates, not insubordinates. How can the executive branch function when all the Indians act like chiefs? What's the point of choosing a queen if the worker bees rule the hive?

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