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Forty-eight Nobel laureates, including at least nine Harvard scientists and doctors, endorsed the presidential candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., this week.
Echoing recent statements by the Kerry campaign, the distinguished researchers alleged in an open letter that the Bush administration has actively impeded the progress of science in the last four years. The letter cited an August 2001 executive order restricting stem cell research, White House skepticism of global warming theory and tightened immigration rules as examples of Bush’s perceived roadblocks to science—and said the Democratic candidate would undo the damage.
“Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy-making that is so important to our collective welfare,” the letter reads. “John Kerry will change all this.”
In interviews this week, several signers said the letter had come together in a week or less as traditionally apolitical researchers felt impelled to act.
“I think the attitude towards science of the present administration seems to be one of either negativity or just ignoring it, especially when it doesn’t suit their political prejudices,” said Research Professor of Neurobiology David H. Hubel, who won the 1981 Nobel in medicine for studying vision and the brain. “It’s really serious, I think.”
“I’m reluctant to get involved in these kinds of things—I don’t think of myself as either a Democrat or a Republican,” said Baird Research Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach, who took home the 1986 Nobel in chemistry for his work on observing reactions via molecular beams. “But from what I’ve seen as the performance of this administration, I think it’s important that they be voted out of office...It’s no wonder that even scientists who would prefer to be nonpartisan feel that in this case it would send a valuable message to the world.”
The Nobelists also cited a scathing February report by the Union of Concerned Scientists which said Bush and his appointees had prevented research from taking its natural course.
“It’s so obvious that things are going very, very wrong,” said Lawrence Professor of Chemistry emeritus William N. Lipscomb Jr. Lipscomb won the 1976 chemistry Nobel.
Several Harvard scientists were particularly critical of Bush’s conservative stance on stem cell research, a technique which proponents say has the potential to generate new organs and cure diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“The thing about science, you cannot predict where you’re going to find the next major finding that will enlighten mankind,” said Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology emeritus Baruj Benacerraf. “So you must support science in general...you must keep an entirely open mind about things in general and not be totally guided by the inner calling of faith and religion.”
Benacerraf, who was awarded the 1980 Nobel prize in medicine for advances in immunology, added that the Bush administration’s immigration policies had stemmed the flow of talented researchers into the United States.
“This is a country which has benefited through centuries of the value of freedom, liberty and being a welcome country for people from everywhere coming to join and participate,” he said. “This is something that must be maintained.”
University President Lawrence H. Summers recently wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67 to decry Bush administration policies that have led to declining international enrollments.
Though the Nobelists expressed serious reservations about Bush’s policies, some said they had precedent in previous administrations, singling out the late Ronald Reagan for particular criticism.
Hubel recalled attending the 1981 Nobel ceremony in Stockholm along with four or five other American winners, including Gade University Professor emeritus Nicolaas Bloembergen, who won in physics that year and who also signed this week’s endorsement letter. Hubel said that the American contingent was the only one that had not received congratulations from their head of state, then Reagan, at the time of the ceremony.
Herschbach leveled similar charges, recounting an incident in which he said the former president had pressured members of a committee to withhold support of science education.
The scientists said they had no specific goals in mind when signing the letter, other than publicly standing behind Kerry’s recent promises to support science and lift restrictions on federal funds for stem cell research.
“I don’t think that because people happen to be Nobel laureates that they have any more political wisdom than other citizens,” Herschbach said. “And yet you do feel that you have the responsibility to speak out when you have the opportunity to do so.”
In addition to Bloembergen, Hubel, Herschbach, Lipscomb and Benacerraf, the Harvard signers included Professor of Surgery emeritus Joseph E. Murray, Loeb University Research Professor Walter Gilbert ’53, Higgins Professor of Physics emeritus Sheldon L. Glashow and Higgins Professor of Physics emeritus Norman F. Ramsey.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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