Kurt Gottfried, professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University and Chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is very concerned about the Bush administration.
“Across a broad range of issues, the administration has undermined the quality of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government’s outstanding scientific personnel. Whether the issue is lead paint, clean air or climate change, this behavior has serious consequences for all Americans,” he told the media in February.
Gottfried is not alone. Over the past three years, U.S. scientists have been increasingly alarmed by the depth and breadth of harm being wreaked on America’s health and welfare by the corporate-friendly policies of the Bush administration.
“We are not simply raising warning flags about an academic subject of interest only to scientists and doctors. In case after case, scientific input to policymaking is being censored and distorted. This will have serious consequences for public health,” warns Neal Lane, a UCS member and former director of the National Science Foundation who once served as a presidential science adviser.
In mid-February, deeply worried about political manipulation of science in decision-making, the UCS issued a statement and a report calling on the Bush administration to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. The statement was signed by more than 60 top scientists, including Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science winners, leading medical experts, former federal-agency directors, and university presidents. The UCS is an independent American nonprofit, nongovernment organization that focuses on issues of scientific interest.
“Given the myriad pressing problems involving complex scientific information — from the AIDS pandemic to the threat of nuclear proliferation — the American public expects government experts and researchers to provide more data and analysis than ever before, and to do so in an impartial and accurate way,” states the Executive Summary of the UCS report, titled “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking.”
“At a time when one might expect the federal government to increasingly rely on impartial researchers for the critical role they play in gathering and analyzing specialized data, there are numerous indications that the opposite is occurring. A growing number of scientists, policymakers and technical specialists both inside and outside the government 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 Executive Summary asserts.
The report looks into these allegations, and is the result of a yearlong investigation of the public record and internal government documents, as well as interviews with government officials, past and present.
The UCS findings are disturbing and unambiguous, and while a sound-bite summary might suffice, sometime it’s best to read the fine print, especially when, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. So here are the four main findings of the scientists’ investigation:
“1) There is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies. These actions have consequences for human health, public safety and community well-being. Incidents involve air pollutants, heat-trapping emissions, reproductive health, drug-resistant bacteria, endangered species, forest health and military intelligence.
“2) There is strong documentation of a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government’s scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of advice that might run counter to the administration’s political agenda.
These actions include: appointing under-qualified individuals to important advisory roles, including childhood lead poisoning prevention and reproductive health; applying political litmus tests that have no bearing on a nominee’s expertise or advisory role; appointing a nonscientist to a senior position in the president’s scientific advisory staff; and dismissing highly qualified scientific advisers.
“3) There is evidence that the administration often imposes restrictions on what government scientists can say or write about ‘sensitive’ topics. In this context, ‘sensitive’ applies to issues that might provoke opposition from the administration’s political and ideological supporters.
“4) There is significant evidence that the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented.”
Based on these findings, the UCS has called for the president, Congress, scientists and the public to act to restore scientific integrity in government policymaking.
The report encourages Americans to contact elected representatives, and to let them know that “censorship and distortion of scientific knowledge are unacceptable in the federal government and must be halted.”
With the presidential election looming in November, a strong public reaction offers perhaps the greatest potential for a positive response from the White House.
Just as the work of scientists must be free from political manipulation, though, the call for sound science must also be objective and come from both Democrats and Republicans.
As Bush enters the stormy seas of the November presidential election will he heed public concerns and the sage advice of scientists, steering a course that puts the health and welfare of Americans above politics? Or will he continue his tack of corporate obeisance?
Considering the Bush penchant for cronyism, there is little reason for optimism. Still, one can hope that he will give some thought to the words of one of his White House predecessors: “Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.” Wise words spoken in 1990 by the President’s father, George Bush Sr.