National Policy Analysis Logo

 # 292  

 June 2000




No Room for Science at the Union of Concerned Scientists

by John Carlisle

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy group of scientists based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, purports to recommend public policy solutions addressing a myriad of issues ranging from global warming to arms control on the basis of sound science.

But the reality is often different.

Upon closer inspection, the UCS is not so much a disinterested group of scientists volunteering their expertise to enlighten public opinion but rather a savvy activist group dedicated to mobilizing public support for political goals that many scientists cannot condone on the basis of sound science. The UCS demonstrates a pattern of misusing science to serve the organization's political agenda. Examples include mobilizing public support to cut greenhouse gas emissions to combat alleged man-made global warming and opposing a national missile defense system.

Nowhere is this political motivation more apparent than in the UCS's campaign to build support for Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. This treaty would require the United States to make economically-damaging cuts in greenhouse gases to stop global warming, even though many scientists dispute the very existence of man-made warming. The UCS attempts to frighten the public with claims that global warming, if left unchecked, will cause malaria and other dangerous diseases currently prevalent in the tropics to spread to the U.S. and other parts of the globe. According to the UCS, "warmer global temperatures will allow an expansion of the geographic range within which both the mosquito and parasite could survive with sufficient abundance."1

But scientific opinion does not support the UCS's attempt to link the spread of malaria to alleged global warming. Dr. Paul Reiter, a chief entomologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), says global warming theory proponents ignore the fact that "malaria is not a tropical disease" and is just as capable of breaking out in colder climates like Alaska as in a tropical nation. In fact, CDC records "thousands of cases of malaria every year" in the U.S. Malaria doesn't occur as often in the U.S. as in tropical nations because of improvements in housing construction, the widespread use of air conditioning, insect repellants and other factors that reduce human exposure to mosquitoes. Dr. Reiter stresses that U.S. malarial outbreaks are not due to global warming, as the UCS might allege, but are usually the result of infected travelers returning from abroad. In Queens, New York, for instance, he noted that an infected traveler caused an outbreak of malaria just a few years ago. Concluded Dr. Reiter, "I wouldn't be surprised if we see more malaria cases [in Queens] but I wouldn't ascribe it to global climate change."2

In the debate over the safety of foods genetically modified through agricultural biotechnology, the UCS seeks to give scientific credibility to some unsubstantiated claims of environmentalists who seek to ban this promising technology out of fear it could cause an environmental apocalypse. Agricultural biotechnology allows scientists to use genetic engineering to create, improve or modify plants. Already, it has produced plants capable of resisting insects and weeds without the use of costly and, in some cases, environmentally-risky pesticides and herbicides. But the UCS, repeating a frequently-voiced claim of biotechnology opponents, argues that such genetically-modified plants could transfer their genetic advantage to nearby weeds, creating "superweeds." The UCS warns that such superweeds, impervious to attempts at control, could relentlessly spread over the landscape and upset natural ecosystems.3 However, the mainstream scientific community rejects this science-fiction scenario. In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Basic Research, Dr. R. James Cook, Professor of Plant Pathology at Washington State University, stated, "I am not aware of a crop plant having become invasive because of plant breeding." Dr. Cook testified that "just the opposite occurs" because, through plant breeding and selection, humans have improved their ability to control potentially invasive weeds.4

The UCS's criticism of agricultural biotechnology stands in sharp contrast to the enthusiastic support that a large majority of scientists have expressed for the technology. A petition organized by Dr. C.S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, endorsing the safety of agricultural biotechnology has been signed by nearly 2,300 scientists from around the world.5 Signers include Nobel prize-winners Dr. James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA's structure, and Dr. Norman Borlaug, considered the "Father of the Green Revolution." Commenting on the motivation for the misinformed opposition to biotechnology voiced by groups like the UCS, Dr. Borlaug concludes, "It's political. It's not scientific."6

Indeed, politics and not science seem to determine the UCS's position on the environment and many other issues. Whatever the UCS's expertise at political activism, which is admittedly considerable, its qualifications to serve as a voice for unbiased scientific opinion are seriously in question.



Footnotes:

1 "Early Warning Signs of Global Warming: Spreading Disease," Fact Sheet, Union of Concerned Scientists.
2 Dr. Paul Reiter, "Global Warming And Vector-Borne Disease: Is Warmer Sicker?," Science Briefing, Competitive Enterprise Institute, July 28, 1998.
3 "Risks of Genetic Engineering," Fact Sheet, Union of Concerned Scientists.
4 Testimony of Dr. R. James Cook Before a Hearing of the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the U.S. House Committee on Science, October 5, 1999.
5 "Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology," Petition organized by Dr. C.S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research, Tuskegee University.
6 Dan Looker, "Anti-GMO Sentiment Will Fade Shortly Says Nobel Peace Prize Winner," World View Report, October 5, 1999.

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John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].




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