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Meanwhile, recent advancements in science have left people not just skeptical, but uneasy, Dr. Leshner said. The life-saving potential of stem cells, for example, could mean the destruction of countless human embryos, forcing the public to make moral choices about the beginnings of life. "When you get on issues that border towards religion, you get the feeling that science is making people uncomfortable. And where they're uncomfortable, that's when we're seeing this increasing overlay of politics, or moralizing, or ideology."

Critics suggest that the Bush government is not simply catering to society's most conservative members, but capitalizing on its wider scientific discomfort. With little fear of paying a political price -- particularly in its second and last term in office -- the administration, they allege, feels free to alter a major federal report finding human activity contributes to global warming; to freeze the NIH research budget for the first time in more than five years; or to disregard environmentalists' concerns about drilling for oil in the pristine Arctic wildlife refuge.

As Dr. Stewart framed it, "If you believe the world is going to end soon, then you don't need to worry about conservation. It's bizarre, but there's a deep lack of respect and hostility toward science."

Certainly the administration's Mr. Pierce speaks with spit-fire impatience about "these guys, these scientists" who steadily lob accusations at the Bush administration. But as he sees it, the problem is theirs: "There is no real tension in the public's mind. This is a blip on the radar."

Some conflicts have spilled out of the laboratories and into the courts. Like the sad saga of Terry Schiavo, a recent Florida environmental controversy has reached the bench of a federal judge.

In the state's southwest, one of the fastest-developing areas in the United States, the prized Florida panther has struggled to survive in its shrinking habitat, the Western Everglades. Shopping malls, roads and golf-course communities have devoured the roaming grounds of the endangered big cat at a rate of 30,000 acres a year.

Andy Eller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote six "biological reports" in his 18-year career warning of threats that could quicken the panther's extinction. But Mr. Eller alleges that in December, 2001, as he set out to pen the seventh, he and his colleagues received astonishing high-level instructions to stop writing reports on risks to the region's 68 threatened species -- the Miami blue butterfly and the American crocodile among them.

But with only 80 Florida panthers remaining, Mr. Eller could not help but log his concerns. He was fired last November, three days after Mr. Bush was re-elected. In a public complaint, he alleged that his disobedience was the reason.

"The tension that comes from pro-development interests has always been there," Mr. Eller said in an interview, "but if there are no reports on threats [to a species] then there is no reason to say no to development."

Federal officials maintain that they sacked Mr. Eller for poor job performance. But last August, a federal judge reviewing a limestone mine proposal in the area ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service had indeed failed to properly assess the impact of development on the endangered panther.

Last month, an independent federal investigation found that the FWS had actually relied on faulty science in shaping its policies, neglecting to evaluate the panther's movements when the animal is most active.

Mr. Eller, now widely lauded as a whistle blower, worries that he is just one of many who have been silenced into not doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. "This administration has proven itself so impervious that people are afraid to speak out."

The most serious charge scientists direct at the White House is that it chokes the free flow of accurate information to the public, particularly on matters of sexual health. They accuse the government of spin and censorship, for example, in nothing less than a "war against condoms."

It began with a congressional request, instigated by abstinence-only proponents, to have federal agencies investigate the efficacy of condoms in preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. The July, 2001, report found condoms highly effective in preventing STDs when used consistently and correctly, and a notable success rate of more than 90 per cent in shielding against HIV.

Birth-control opponents viewed the less-than-perfect score as evidence that using condoms is like "playing Russian roulette." The results ushered in a new era of abstinence promotion at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helps to focus health research and clinical care across the United States.

A fact sheet on the CDC website that promoted condoms as an effective means to protect against STDs was replaced with information that emphasizes their failure rate. Information about how to run sex-education programs has also disappeared.

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