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"We are really coming against the fact that data doesn't matter. . . . If you don't like what the data says, well then you don't have to pay attention to it," said Kirsten Moore, president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, a non-profit group that lobbied to make the pill available.

"That's not to say scientists have all the answers. . . . But I think what we find so frustrating are bogus scientific arguments to justify a political position."

David Hager, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Kentucky, was one of the few who voted against easier access to the so-called morning-after pill. "What we heard today," he said at the time, "was frequently about individuals who did not want to take responsibility for their actions and wanted a medication to relieve those consequences."

The author of As Jesus Cared for Women, Dr. Hager is known widely for having refused to prescribe contraception to unmarried women, and recommending Bible-reading to relieve PMS. His placement on the FDA Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee is one of many controversial appointments Mr. Bush has made.

One of several contentious picks for the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, for example, was the outspoken Christian conservative tapped to be its co-chair in 2002. Former Republican congressman Thomas Coburn, an Oklahoma obstetrician and now a senator who advocates the death penalty for abortion doctors, had certainly been active on the AIDS issue, spearheading legislation to commit $1-billion to treat and prevent the disease. But he also distinguished himself as an abstinence-only crusader, insisting that condoms carry warning labels about failure rates.

Mr. Bush's top science adviser, John Marburger, has defended White House appointments, noting that he himself is a lifelong Democrat. But critics charge that the administration has often bypassed those with the best scientific credentials for ideological reasons.

The administration's Mr. Pierce acknowledged that "these are people who may well hold different ideas than [the critics]do." But, he said, "If you want to receive good advice, you need to have competing ideas. If you want to receive bad advice, then get five people in a room who all think the same thing."

Yet last winter, 170 scientists wrote an open letter of protest to the White House charging that world-renowned biologist Elizabeth Blackburn had been dismissed from the President's Council on Bioethics because she did not support government policies on embryonic-stem-cell research.

Lewis Branscomb, a Harvard University professor who directed the National Bureau of Standards under Richard Nixon's Republican administration, was particularly critical of the government's record on these matters: "I'm not aware that [Mr. Nixon]ever hand-picked ideologues to serve on advisory committees, or dismissed from advisory committees very well-qualified people if he didn't like their views," he has said.

"What's going on now is in many ways more insidious. . . . I don't think we've had this kind of cynicism with respect to objective scientific advice since I've been watching government, which is quite a long time."

When the Traditional Values Coalition prepared its list of "questionable" research projects, it proudly described the endeavour as targeting a "sacred cow." That sentiment hints at a larger problem -- a significant conversion in a society that once seemed to embrace science as tantamount to a new religion.

From the Second World War to the close of the millennium, miracles seemed to spring from laboratories -- moon landings, heart transplants, commercial jets, the polio vaccine, nuclear power, computers, antibiotics and a decoded human genome (a feat Mr. Clinton likened to learning the language of God).

But now all around are mysteries it struggles to solve, from cancer to mad-cow disease, from antibiotic resistance to SARS. Wonder drugs have been exposed as killers. Cold fusion has flopped. Even the flu looms as an insurmountable foe. People are losing faith.

"Science is not viewed as nearly as infallible as it once was," said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The relationship between science and society is rockier than it's been for quite a while."

Dr. Leshner pointed to a study in Europe that found the number of people who believe that the benefits of science outweigh the risks dropped more than 10 percentage points from 1992 to 2001, from 61 to 50 per cent.

He links those figures to statistics from the U.S. National Science Bureau that suggest 61 per cent of Americans believe in ESP and 41 per cent think astrology is scientific: "It's not that Americans don't understand scientific facts, but rather that they don't like them and they don't want to hear them."

Just last month, movie theatres in Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas refused to run an IMAX film about volcanoes, fearing that it might offend people who do not believe in evolution.

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