The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 21, 2004
Scientists say White House bends research to policy
By JEFF GUNTZEL
Sound science is a Bush administration phrase that has, until recently, largely evaded mainstream pundits. The president and his administration, however, have insisted since first taking office that sound science is the foundation on which rests a growing list of often-controversial policies.
With what is already a tight presidential race underway, the Bush administrations handling of scientific information in policymaking -- from climate change to condom use -- is surfacing as a critical issue.
Earlier this year, an open letter signed by 62 prominent U.S. scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and a handful of science advisers to past Republican presidents, accused the administration of sifting scientific data through a political screen and of bending government agencies to conform with White House policy.
Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, the letter opens, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. The group said the Bush administration has disregarded this principle.
When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the letter asserted, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions.
The letter was issued by the left-leaning Union of Concerned Scientists, a science and science policy think-tank best known for its work on nuclear proliferation and a host of environmental concerns.
Dr. Kurt Gottfried, chair of the union, calls the letter unprecedented. Critics call it partisan politics.
But many of the signers had no affiliation with the organization and are not all pre-disposed adversaries of the sitting administration. Speaking at the National Press Club recently, the world-renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson defended his signature on the letter while remembering President Bushs 2000 campaign as inspiring.
And for at least one signer, Harvard professor of science and public policy and former adviser to the Nixon White House Lewis Brandscomb, signing this letter of protest was a first.
Buttressing the letters assertions was a 46-page report released simultaneously by Union of Concerned Scientists detailing what it calls the suppression and distortion of research findings at federal agencies, and the undermining of the quality and integrity of the appointment process. (See accompanying article.)
A growing number of scientists, policy makers and technical specialists both inside and outside the government, the report claims, allege that the current Bush administration has suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy. The quality and breadth of these charges warrant further examination, especially given the stature of many of the individuals lodging them.
While drawing some of its information from interviews with current and former government scientists, the union report leans heavily on media investigations.
That, detractors say, is the reports weakness. Bob Walker is a former Republican Congressman who once chaired the House Committee on Science. A lobbyist of late, he has taken to the airwaves to defend the Bush administration from the unions allegations.
Walker appeared on a talk show recently with Gottfried.
I cited scientific reports to back up my arguments as to why the administration was in fact proceeding with a very responsible scientific agenda, Walker said. All he did was cite newspaper reports.
Who is more on the side of science here?
But it is the administrations handling of scientific efforts, not science itself, which is at issue.
We are not criticizing the administrations handling of science, Gottfried said. Were criticizing the administrations handling of the input from science in certain policy decisions.
Its a thin line, but one that Gottfried said most administrations do not cross.
That this administration seems to have crossed that line more than once, he said, explains scientists risking -- in some cases -- federal funding to send a warning to the White House.
Gottfried said he cannot recall a time when people like the president of the California Institute of Technology or the dean of the Medical School at Columbia lent their names to such a cause.
Usually people sign these things after theyve left such offices, he said. Thats an indication of how strongly people feel.
The report is not the first attempt to catalog what many see as the constantly competing forces of political ideology and scientific research inside the Bush administration. It is, however, the first to inspire a notable response from the White House.
First there was an offhanded quip. A conspiracy theory report is what White House science adviser John Marburger III initially labeled the Union of Concerned Scientists effort.
But 20 Nobel laureates in science publicly releasing a laundry list of conspiracy theories is unlikely at best. So Marburger, also director of the Presidents Office of Science and Technology Policy and a physicist himself, released a 21-page report on behalf of the administration rebutting the scientists claims.
The administrations rebuttal called the unions accusations wrong and misleading, and provided details that have failed to convince the authors of the union report.
And, of course, the union quickly fashioned and released their response to the administrations counterclaims.
That may be the end of it for now. Senate hearings triggered by the report were scheduled and postponed twice. There is currently no date for a hearing -- though the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said it is still interested.
Jeff Guntzel is a contributing writer who lives in Indianapolis.
National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: firstname.lastname@example.org