National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Scientists say White House bends research to policy


“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 administration’s 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 Bush’s 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 letter’s 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 report’s 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 union’s 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 administration’s handling of scientific efforts, not science itself, which is at issue.

“We are not criticizing the administrations handling of science,” Gottfried said. “We’re criticizing the administration’s handling of the input from science in certain policy decisions.”

It’s 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 they’ve left such offices,” he said. “That’s 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 President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and a physicist himself, released a 21-page report on behalf of the administration rebutting the scientist’s claims.

The administration’s rebuttal called the union’s 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 administration’s 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.

Changes to EPA report among letter's charges

Earlier this year some of the country’s most prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed an open letter to President Bush titled, “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking.” The signers included a number of science advisers to past Republican presidents.

In coordination with the letter, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a 46-page report finding “an unprecedented pattern of behavior” in the Bush administration’s handling of scientific input on key policy issues.

The White House responded to the union’s report with a 20-page rebuttal in early April. By the month’s close, the union had responded to the response with 13 more pages. For now, it seems that the union has been granted the last word. NCR contacted The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy looking for further comment but received only a one-line email in response:

“OSTP provided a response to clear any misperceptions that may exist on these issues and provide facts that were not made available in the UCS document. We stand by our response.”

Still, the paper debate reveals much.

The first case of the union report came to light after an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo was leaked to The New York Times. The memo revealed an EPA unsure what to do with White House edits -- “major edits,” according to the memo -- to its draft chapter on climate change prepared for the EPA’s annual Report on the Environment. The White House edits indicated, according to the memo, that “no further changes be made.”

Those edits, the EPA memo suggests, imply uncertainty “where there is essentially none,” and alters the chapter to the point that it “no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change.”

Words like “potentially” or “may” were inserted by the White House, and a 1,000-year temperature record showing an unprecedented rise in temperatures beginning early in the last century and connecting the rise indirectly to the rise of industry was deleted.

“Since taking office,” the union report claims, “the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine the public’s understanding of the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are making a discernible contribution to global warming.”

Several scenarios are discussed in the EPA memo. The EPA could publish the White House version of the edit; it could challenge the White House and prolong what had already been a tumultuous back-and-forth between the agency and the White House; or they could just delete the chapter from the report.

The EPA deleted the chapter.

The White House responded to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ appraisal of the situation with an excerpt from a June 2001 Rose Garden speech by the president on climate change. In that speech, the President acknowledged the effect of human activity on the increased concentration of greenhouse gases.

The White House also took issue with the accusation that it forced changes on the EPA report. The charge, the rebuttal insisted, was false.

The Union of Concerned Scientists was indignant: “This position would imply that The New York Times’ front-page story was false, that the leaked EPA memo … is a fabrication, and that the well-known statement by former EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman that the political environment surrounding this issue was ‘brutal’ is misleading.”

As for the Rose Garden speech, the union says, that was three years ago: Today the president is not acting in concert with the words of his earlier speech.

A significant portion of the union report focuses on Bush administration appointees. “The current administration,” the report claims, “has repeatedly allowed political considerations to trump scientific qualifications in the appointment process.”

The report highlights an administration appointment to the Food and Drug Administration’s Reproductive Health Advisory Committee, which advises the FDA on such litigious issues as contraceptives, abortion and hormone replacement therapy. The administration put up an obstetrician-gynecologist who, according to a 2002 investigation by Time magazine, has refused to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women in his private practice and who wrote, with his wife, a book recommending “specific scripture readings and prayers for such ailments as headaches and premenstrual syndrome.”

What’s worse, the union said, is the fact that this doctor, who volunteers part-time with interns at a Baptist hospital in Lexington, Ky., through a university program there, was chosen over FDA staff nominees that included the former dean of the University of Pittsburg School of Health and Rehabilitation and the director of maternal-fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The White House response called union’s claims, and by extension the Time investigation, “offensive and wrong.” It did not, however, offer any evidence in its defense, saying only that the doctor in question is “in fact well qualified” and noting that his curriculum vitae is “widely available.”

-- Jeff Guntzel

Related Web sites

Union of Concerned Scientists: “Restoring Scientific Integrity”

White House response to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ document

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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