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A Pattern of Misuse

by Rudy M. Baum
March 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 9

Two weeks ago, 62 distinguished U.S. scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize winners, accused the Administration of President George W. Bush of systematically misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 5).

In a letter signed by the scientists, they state: "When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government's own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice. Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front. Furthermore, in advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, the administration has sometimes misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies."

In coordination with the scientists' letter, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science," that details a variety of instances of such activity in numerous federal agencies.

At a press briefing, President Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, dismissed the UCS report as politically motivated. He said the report was little more than a compilation of isolated actions and that President Bush is "quite supportive of science."

Does Marburger's defense hold up? Everyone in Washington accuses their critics of being "politically motivated." A quick glance at the names of the critical scientists reveals that they're hardly a bunch of radicals. In fact, they represent a pretty broad political spectrum. And no one questioned whether President Bush is supportive of science.

Most of the incidents detailed in the UCS report have been reported previously, many of them in the pages of C&EN, but that does not make them any less relevant. In fact, the useful function the UCS report performs is not to reveal new information but to bring together a collection of isolated actions and pose the question: Does this represent a pattern of misuse of science?

It is hard to reach anything other than the distressing conclusion that it does represent such a pattern. In case after case documented by UCS, inconvenient scientific findings--and even scientists themselves--were marginalized, suppressed, or dismissed. When EPA's draft "Report on the Environment" came back from the White House, for example, the section on global climate change had a 1,000-year temperature record removed and was so loaded with qualifiers that the agency decided to eliminate the section on climate change altogether rather than release a dishonest report. At USDA, a research microbiologist was prohibited on 11 occasions from publicizing his research on potential hazards to human health posed by airborne bacteria from industrial hog farms. The State Department ignored expert opinion from three national laboratories that countered the CIA's contention that aluminum tubes Iraq tried to import were destined for centrifuges to enrich uranium. Scientific advisory panels were abolished or packed with members whose scientific credentials were suspect, at best.

I have little doubt that President Bush supports science, in the sense that science is a useful tool for accomplishing certain limited objectives. However, I do not think he or his top advisers have much understanding of or respect for science as a method for investigating a problem and developing objective data on it. As such, the Administration appears to have little difficulty ignoring inconvenient science. That is not a healthy way to develop national policies on issues with a significant science or technology component to them.

Thanks for reading.


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