From environmental hazards to sex education, the federal government in the past several years has been twisting science to political ends. The ends are sometimes ideological - as in the suppression of information about condoms and sexual safety - and sometimes simply take the form of favors to business interests that would like to see less environmental, public health, or workplace safety regulation. But the pattern has become so pervasive that much of the scientific community is up in arms. The question is, what can be done to stop it?
Concern about the current administration's manipulation and distortion of science goes back at least to July 2003, when the Interior Department introduced a new book into the Grand Canyon National Park's official bookstore. Titled Grand Canyon: A Different View, the book takes issue with extensive geological evidence that the canyon evolved over several million years, and instead argues that the canyon was forged by a single "catastrophic" event only a few thousand years ago: the great flood of biblical fame.
Leading geological associations protested this introduction of creationism into the National Park Service's educational programs. They pointed out that a major purpose of the Park Service is "to promote the use of sound science in all its programs." The government's top geologist, David Shaver, explained that A Different View "purports to be science when it is not," and makes "claims that are counter to widely accepted geological evidence." Nevertheless, the book was reordered after stock ran out, and as of October 2004 was still being marketed by the Parks Service.
If this conflict between science and religious fundamentalism was just one more instance of Biblical literalists' unending effort to undermine evolution, a report released just a month after the appearance of A Different View on government bookstore shelves detailed more contemporary distortions of science. Prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, this report described the purging of safer-sex information from the Centers for Disease Control Web site, the posting of misinformation on the National Cancer Institute site that asserted an increased risk of breast cancer among women who have had abortions, and the suppression of information about lead poisoning, global warming, prescription drug advertising, and water pollution caused by the oil and gas industries.
In February 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a similar, but longer and more detailed report. Divided into two parts, it first documented "Suppression and Distortion of Research Findings at Federal Agencies," including information on climate change (global warming), air quality (mercury emissions from power plants and other air pollutants), reproductive health (sex education, HIV-AIDS, and the alleged breast cancer-abortion link), airborne bacteria, Iraq's aluminum tubes (erroneously claimed by the administration to be part of a nuclear weapons program), endangered species, and forest management. The second part of the UCS report, "Undermining the Quality and Integrity of the Appointment Process," described the purging of qualified scientists from federal advisory panels, the appointment of less qualified, and often industry-connected replacements, and the vetting of panel candidates with political questions such as whether they had voted for President Bush and would support his policies.
These political litmus tests for scientific advisory panels were particularly troubling, for they evidenced a basic misunderstanding of the panels' purposes. Scientific advisory committees are supposed to provide objective, unbiased information to guide government officials in making policy that will protect public health, occupational safety, and the environment - not to give an aura of respectability to policies that political leaders have decided upon in advance.
Perhaps the starkest example of ideology trumping science in the appointment of advisors was the selection of Dr. W. David Hager to the Food & Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Advisory Committee. The UCS report recounted that the administration initially suggested Hager as chair of the FDA committee, but "after widespread public outcry" because of his "scant credentials and highly partisan political views," the administration settled for making him a committee member rather than the chair. The report noted that Hager "is best known for co-authoring a book that recommends particular scripture readings as a treatment for premenstrual syndrome and, in his private practice, Hager has reportedly refused to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women."
Accompanying the UCS's February 2004 report was a strongly-worded statement of concern by 62 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize winners. "Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States of America the world's most powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy," the statement began. "Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences." But the Bush administration had disregarded this principle by "placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees," and by censoring reports by "the government's own scientists. * Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front."
The administration quickly responded. The director of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Marburger III, issued a statement the same day as the scientists', accusing them of making "sweeping generalizations * based on what appears to be a miscellany of criticisms" largely from "partisan political figures and advocacy organizations."
Marburger followed up in April 2004 with a 20-page single-spaced rebuttal to the UCS report. It touted Bush Administration expenditures and achievements, insisted that advisory committee appointees are put through a "rigorous selection process," and otherwise emphasized the positive - for example, that CIA Director George Tenet had acknowledged that none of Iraq's aluminum tubes found so far met the specifications for nuclear weapons; that the President had appointed Democrats to science advisory panels; and that the misleading statements about abortion and breast cancer had been revised after further review. Marburger also acknowledged that an Environmental Protection Agency report on mercury emissions should not have copied directly from an industry memo.
But as the UCS painstakingly pointed out in its reply to Marburger two weeks later, "aside from a couple of minutiae, the White House document fails to offer much evidence to support its claims," and instead "offers irrelevant information and fails to address the central point of many charges in the UCS report." Reviewing the record on mercury emissions, climate change, abstinence-only education, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, airborne bacteria, Iraq's aluminum tubes, endangered species, lead poisoning, forest management, workplace safety, and political litmus tests for advisory panels, the UCS pointed out that Marburger had not in fact denied many of the charges.
The next salvo was fired by the UCS in July 2004, when it published a follow-up report. It documented administration actions that:
- minimized findings on the environmental devastation caused by strip mining;
- prevented approval of over-the-counter sale of an emergency contraceptive despite advisory panel consensus on its safety (the drug is available without prescription in 33 other countries);
- deleted scientific advice on endangered salmon;
- used flawed science in Fish & Wildlife Service findings on endangered species (Florida panthers, bull trout, and rare swans); and
- continued to pose partisan political questions to advisory committees nominees (e.g., "what I thought about President Bush: did I like him, what did I think of the job he was doing*").
The introduction to this second report quoted UCS board chair and physicist Kurt Gottfried: "The absence of a candid and constructive response from the White House is troubling, as these issues - from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change and nuclear weapons - have serious consequences for public health, well-being, and national security."
The UCS's concerns were well-publicized, and led to a lengthy New York Times article in October 2004. It quoted Marburger explaining that "this administration really does not like regulation and it believes in market processes *, so there's always going to be a tilt in an administration like this one to a certain set of actions that you take to achieve some policy objective." The Times also quoted one marine ecologist who had been nominated for the Arctic Research Commission and was asked as the first interview question from a White House staffer: "Do you support the president?" She replied that "she was not a fan of Mr. Bush's economic and foreign policies. 'That was the end of the interview,' she said. 'I was removed from consideration instantly.'"
By December 2004, more than 5,000 scientists had signed on to the original February 2004 statement of concern. Forty-eight are Nobel laureates, 62 are National Medal of Science recipients, and 135 are members of the National Academy of Sciences. But despite the growing alarums, occasional embarrassing publicity, and continuing pressure from Congressman Waxman's office, there have been only sporadic retreats from the administration's politicization of science.
For example, a number of advisory panel nominations that were at first rejected, were later accepted after protest and pressure from leaders in the field. The misinformation about breast cancer and abortion was removed from the National Cancer Institute site and after several months, accurate information was restored. Most important, perhaps, the administration continues to claim its respect for science and deny that its policies are driven by business interests or the magical thinking of its fundamentalist base. As long as the administration accepts that scientific impartiality and integrity are the agreed-upon goals, there is the potential that publicity and pressure can prevent or reverse at least some partisan distortions of scientific findings.
The UCS has ambitious plans in this respect: further dissemination of information; organizing roundtables and support groups at universities across the country; toolkits of event planning materials; classroom resources; more publicity; working groups on the various scientific policy issues; and coordination with Rep. Waxman, who introduced legislation in late 2004 that would have created "an independent commission to investigate the politicization of science under the Bush administration." The legislation was defeated in a nearly party-line vote.
In part, this battle over scientific integrity in government is part of a longer-term struggle for Englightenment values and against theocratic yearnings in America. As Gary Wills recently wrote, "America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences." But "can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution [according to recent surveys] still be called an Enlightened nation?" The jury is still out.
Marjorie Heins is coordinator of the Free Expression Policy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice http://www.fepproject.org