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Science And Politics

by Rudy Baum,
January 21, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 3

One of the complaints I receive about some essays published on this page is that politics should have no place in C&EN, that the magazine and its editor-in-chief should stick to science. My consistent response to these complaints has been that there is a political and social component to much of what affects the chemical enterprise today and that it is a fundamental responsibility of C&EN to cover these aspects of scientific and technological issues.

Three stories in this week's issue illustrate my point well. The cover story is C&EN's annual soaps and detergents feature by Assistant Managing Editor Michael McCoy. As he has for the past couple of years, McCoy focuses on how chemical companies that supply the cleaning products industry are responding to increasing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.

"That a consumer products giant like Clorox would venture into the market for so-called green cleaning products says a lot about how much the home care industry has changed in the past two years," McCoy writes. "Once solely the province of fringe players, green or sustainable cleaners are attracting the interest of big corporations in America and elsewhere."

Government regulations, requests by major retailers like Wal-Mart, pressure from environmental activist organizations, and the desires of consumers have combined to exert powerful incentives on chemical companies to develop ingredients for safe and effective cleaning products that are also kind to the environment.

Consumers, especially, have become conscious of their individual environmental footprint. Henrik Jørgensen of the Danish company Danlind told McCoy, for example, that Danish consumers buy Danlind's Care Coldwash because it reduces energy consumption and hence their carbon footprint. Consumers actually don't save much money on the product. "They save on energy but must pay a little more for the chemistry," Jørgensen said.

This week's issue also contains C&EN's annual "Congressional Outlook" for the coming year, written by the entire Government & Policy Department staff, headed by Assistant Managing Editor Susan Morrissey. Here, of course, is one place where politics and science inevitably intersect as Congress crafts legislation, passes funding bills, and holds hearings.

With much pressing science and technology business before it, the second session of the 110th Congress is unfortunately poised to do little of substance. "The national elections will overshadow a lot of legislation as members try to show that they are effective while not doing anything that will be controversial," the C&EN government team predicts.

In a conversation I had with her about this editorial, Morrissey pointed out an irritating example of Congress' penchant for empty grandstanding in place of substantive action: The beginning last week of hearings by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by major league baseball players.

Here's the problem: We all agree that steroids and human growth hormone should not be used by baseball players for all sorts of reasons. As these hearings progress, representatives on the committee will make impassioned speeches decrying such use, and all of their constituents will agree with their outrage. What's not being done is work on many matters that aren't so easy to agree on. Things like chemical plant security and whether legislation should enforce the idea of inherently safer technology, for example. Or whether some of the $13 billion in tax breaks enjoyed by oil and gas companies should be shifted to renewable energy providers. Or whether a cap-and-trade mechanism should be enacted to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, Deputy Assistant Managing Editor Stu Borman reports on a new publication from the National Academies, "Science, Evolution, and Creationism." The booklet is designed for nonscientists and explains in clear language why evolution and religion should be able to coexist peacefully. They should, but they still don't, thanks to politics mingling with science.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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