Top Scientists Want Research Free From Politics
BOSTON - Leading U.S. scientists called on Congress Thursday to make sure the next president does not do what they say the George W. Bush Administration has done: censor, suppress and falsify important environmental and health research.
"The next president and Congress must cultivate an environment where reliable scientific advice flows freely," said Susan Wood, a former director of women's research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Wood resigned her post in 2005 in protest over the FDA's delay in getting emergency, over-the-counter birth control onto the market.
"Serious consequences can result when drug safety decisions are not based on the best available scientific advice from staff scientists and experts," she said.
Wood joined a panel of prominent scientists in Boston -- convened by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group -- to announce a joint statement asking Congress to protect scientific integrity. Among the more than 15,000 government scientists signing onto the statement are Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre and former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Anthony Robbins, professor of medicine at Tufts University and former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
"Although surely the worst, the Bush Administration is not the first, nor will it be the last administration to mistreat and misuse science and scientists," Robbins said. The White House itself has been directly involved in the suppression and falsification of science, Robbins stressed.
But interference from the White House is just part of the problem, said Francesca Grifo, a former government researcher and now a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Industry lobbyists are all over government agencies, trying to influence research that will impact their corporations, she said. "These special interest groups are being given access at the highest level."
"Government scientists have had their findings subjected to censorship and misrepresentation," said Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell University and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The public and Congress have often been deprived of accurate and candid scientific information."
"The pursuit of science in an open society has had a long and fruitful tradition in America," Gottfried said. "Unfortunately, this tradition has been violated in recent years by the government itself."
The Union of Concerned Scientists has been tracking the Bush Administration's activities within the scientific community. No fewer than 1,191 scientists employed at nine federal agencies have reported to the group that they fear retaliation from their superiors because the results of their research are threatening to corporate or other interests, according to Grifo.
"What we've been seeing is that when certain programs produce research results that are considered inconvenient they are being penalized by having their funding cut," Grifo told IPS. One such program is an annual listing of pollutants released by private companies, called the Toxic Release Inventory.
"We have seen it undermined," Grifo said. The NASA satellite research program Mission to Planet Earth, which documents environmental degradation, also has been the target of severe budget cuts, Grifo said.
"When science is falsified, fabricated or censored Americans' health and safety suffer," Grifo said.
This interference has been directed at climate change research, new birth control drugs, species protection, consumer safety studies and agricultural research, the scientists said.
The suppression of health data by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may cost many people who were at Ground Zero in New York City -- or lived nearby on Sep. 11 -- their health, the scientists said. Following the attacks of Sep. 11, then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman went before the public and safety personnel on numerous occasions and said that the dust hovering over Ground Zero and settling over New York was not harmful. Many rescue workers and local residents have since become gravely ill due to the toxicity of the air they breathed.
The fate of the Greater Sage grouse is unknown since a top government official interfered with scientific studies showing that the bird and its habitat needed protection from development, the scientists said. Julie MacDonald stalled the release of studies on the grouse by questioning the methodology and conclusions. An expert panel never saw the studies and so recommended the bird not be protected.
Robin Ingle, a former statistician with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the commission refused to warn the public about gross problems with products like all-terrain vehicles even when research made clear how dangerous they were. "A political appointee at my agency prevented my research on all-terrain-vehicle safety from reaching the public, even when deaths and injuries occurred," she said.
"It's very important that scientific and mathematical research on consumer products be free of the push and pull of politics because you don't want it to be biased in favour of the industry," Ingle told IPS.
In another example, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was prevented 11 times from publicizing his research about the dangers of bacteria in the air near massive pig farms in Iowa and Missouri -- a big business that supplies America's pork. His research found that the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. But his supervisor refused to allow him to discuss his results, saying in one memo to him: "politically sensitive and controversial issues require discretion."
© 2008 Adrianne Appel