Leslie Williamson
Dean Philip A. Pizzo, M.D.

Dean Philip A. Pizzo, M.D.

Letter from the Dean

Dear Readers,

Once upon a time you weren’t a Democratic scientist or a Republican scientist. You were a scientist, pure and simple, and your work stood apart from politics. In those days, the U.S. government valued scientists’ analyses — in no small part because they were considered untarnished by partisanship.

Times have changed. You have undoubtedly heard about the Bush administration’s effort to quiet NASA reports indicating that climate change is proceeding apace. And you might have also observed that respected scientists have resigned from top government positions to protest the administration’s disregard for science. This fall, for instance, Susan F. Wood left her post as assistant FDA commissioner for women’s health because the administration overturned an FDA panel’s vote to make the “morning after” birth control pill more accessible.

While I have viewed these developments with concern, the situation became personal only within the last few months. It began with a call from the personnel office at the White House, indicating that I had been nominated for an important scientific advisory committee. While I do not want to sound immodest, it was an appointment that I believe I would be well qualified to assume. However, because it was a presidential appointment, I went through an interview and vetting process. That was reasonable. But when the questions turned to my position on stem cells or my party affiliation, it was clear that the selection would likely be influenced by factors other than scientific expertise.

Not surprisingly, I was not appointed to this committee. And while there might have been other justifications, I believe the answers I gave to the litmus test questions weighed heavily in the final decision.

I fully recognize that a political appointment process has been part of the “American way” since the signing of the Constitution, if not before. But it is unwise and even dangerous to use political factors to screen individuals for scientific leadership positions. We run the risk of losing our prominence in science with such practices — which appear to be on the rise in Washington these days. What it amounts to is an anti-science mind-set, fostered by the White House as well as politically powerful fundamentalist Christian groups. Indeed, I have long feared that as a nation we are moving closer to a theocracy than a democracy — which would represent de-evolution!

This Stanford Medicine special report explores the issue of evolution, which encapsulates the anti-science attitude at work in this country. Despite undisputed recognition among scientists that evolution is the foundation of modern biology, more than 40 percent of Americans believe living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. In other words, they don’t believe in evolution.

Whether this is a lapse of science education or the need for individuals in an increasingly secular environment to sustain an anchor in life through a belief/faith system is unclear, but it is a larger issue than the simple question, “Do you believe in evolution?” Indeed, the disturbing trend to simply deny scientific data in the interest of religion or politics has a major impact on our daily lives as it influences decisions affecting public policy, governance and tolerance. It is very appropriate and reasonable for faith and science to co-exist — but one should not trump the other.

You’ll read in this issue how former President Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian, is also deeply troubled by the nation’s apparent move toward theocracy. He urges today’s leaders to maintain the separation of church and state. I’ll second this motion and propose a friendly amendment: It’s long past time for an end to political interference in science.


Philip A. Pizzo, MD
Professor of Pediatrics and of Microbiology and Immunology
Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Professor

Dean, Stanford University School of Medicine

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