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Bush Administration Accused of Suppressing, Distorting Science
Published on Thursday, February 19, 2004 by Knight-Ridder
Bush Administration Accused of Suppressing, Distorting Science
by Seth Borenstein
 

WASHINGTON - A group of more than 60 top U.S. scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and several science advisers to past Republican presidents, on Wednesday accused the Bush administration of manipulating and censoring science for political purposes.

Among prominent scientists who on Wednesday endorsed a letter and report critical of the Bush administration's use of science are:

-David Baltimore, winner of Nobel Prize for medicine, president of the California Institute of Technology.

-Lewis Branscomb, former director of the National Bureau of Standards under President Nixon, current professor of science and public policy at Harvard University.

-Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University population biologist.

-Gerald Fischbach, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, dean of Columbia University's faculty of medicine.

-Neal Lane, former science adviser to President Clinton, former director of the National Science Foundation, now an astronomy professor at Rice University in Houston.

-Leon Lederman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and former director of the Fermi National Lab.

-Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University zoologist and former president of the AAAS.

-F. Sherwood Rowland, atmospheric scientist at the University of California-Irvine, past president of AAAS.

-Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, Nobel Prize winner for medicine, current CEO of the Memorial-Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

-E.O. Wilson, Harvard University ecologist.

In a 46-page report and an open letter, the scientists accused the administration of "suppressing, distorting or manipulating the work done by scientists at federal agencies" in several cases. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., organized the effort, but many of the critics aren't associated with it.

White House Science Advisor John Marburger III called the charges "like a conspiracy theory report, and I just don't buy that." But he added that "given the prestige of some of the individuals who have signed on to this, I think they deserve additional response and we're coordinating something."

The protesting scientists welcomed his response.

"If an administration of whatever political persuasion ignores scientific reality, they do so at great risk to the country," said Stanford University physicist W.H.K. Panofsky, who served on scientific advisory councils in the Eisenhower, Johnson and Carter administrations. "There is no clear understanding in the (Bush) administration that you cannot bend science and technology to policy."

The report charges that administration officials have:

  • Ordered massive changes to a section on global warming in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2003 Report on the Environment. Eventually, the entire section was dropped.
  • Replaced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on proper condom use with a warning emphasizing condom failure rates.
  • Ignored advice from top Department of Energy nuclear materials experts who cautioned that aluminum tubes being imported by Iraq weren't suitable for use to make nuclear weapons.
  • Established political litmus tests for scientific advisory boards. In one case, public health experts were removed from a CDC lead paint advisory panel and replaced with researchers who had financial ties to the lead industry.
  • Suppressed a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist's finding that potentially harmful bacteria float in the air surrounding large hog farms.
  • Excluded scientists who've received federal grants from regulatory advisory panels while permitting the appointment of scientists from regulated industries.

"I don't recall it ever being so blatant in the past," said Princeton University physicist Val Fitch, a 1980 Nobel Prize winner who served on a Nixon administration science advisory committee. "It's just time after time after time. The facts have been distorted."

White House adviser Marburger, also a physicist, said, "I don't think that these incidents or issues add up to strong support for the accusation that this administration is deliberately acting to undermine the processes of science."

Each example cited was a separate case, Marburger said, often decided at the agency level for good reasons. He declined to defend any case.

Russell Train, an EPA administrator in the Nixon and Ford administrations who spoke on the protesters' behalf, described the Bush administration's treatment of science and scientists as so "dictatorial" that it was causing good scientists to leave the federal government.

James Zahn, a former Agriculture Department microbiologist, said he discovered accidentally that pig farms in southwestern Minnesota, northern Missouri and Iowa were emitting airborne bacteria. Because pigs are often fed antibiotics, Zahn speculated that airborne bacteria from farms could include drug-resistant bacteria, which, if breathed by humans, would make them harder to treat when ill.

Zahn presented his findings at a scientific conference in 2000, but the Bush administration stopped him from publishing his data 11 times between September 2001 and April 2002, he said. When Danish researchers sought to learn more about his work, Zahn wasn't allowed to share his techniques.

"It was truly a new problem with potential impact on human health," Zahn said.

The protest occurred on the same day that the independent National Academy of Sciences released its study of the Bush administration's plans for global warming research. The national academy's report warned strenuously about the dangers of politicizing climate change science, but said the Bush research plan was on the right track, though it noted that it was underfunded.

James Mahoney, who directs the global warming research plan, acknowledged that the Bush administration had cut the research budget from $2.2 billion this year to $1.96 next year.

William Schlesinger, the dean of the School of Environment at Duke University in Durham, N.C., participated in the academy's study and the scientists' protest. He gave the Bush administration's climate plan a grade of B-.

But, he added, the Bush administration's science policy is too politicized and gets a "D." He said, "Scientists are very disappointed at this administration's use and regard of science."

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For information on the Union of Concerned Scientists' report, go to:
http://www.ucsusa.org/global-environment/rsi/index.cfm

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Web site is:
http://www.ostp.gov/

Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder

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