White House science, or science fiction?

News Analysis

In February, more than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement asserting that the Bush administration had willfully distorted scientific fact to fit its policy goals in areas such as biomedical research, the environment, health, and nuclear weaponry at home and abroad.

The administration has constantly ignored scientific reports it disagrees with, such as on the issue of global warming. A dozen major government studies on global warming have been suppressed in the administration’s efforts to stall action to control industrial emissions.

Who controls the research can make a world of difference as well. Take the case of Atrazine, the most commonly used weedkiller in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey tests regularly find dangerously high concentrations of Atrazine in drinking water, especially in the Midwest. The European Union has banned this pesticide, but the Bush administration found it easier to fudge data to get the results it wanted. For example, last November the Environmental Protection Agency made a deal with the pesticide manufacturer Syngenta to oversee federal studies of Atrazine, which it manufactures.

Another way the current administration has avoided the truth is to fire whistle-blowing scientists. This has occurred when EPA staff tried to get the Army Corps of Engineers to follow the Endangered Species Act in managing the flow of the Missouri River. The entire team was dismissed and replaced with a group in the pocket of big business.

It also happened to EPA engineers selected to investigate the collapse of barriers that held back a coal slurry pond in Kentucky containing toxic wastes from mountaintop strip-mining. Two of the scientists, Tony Oppegard and Jack Spadaro, were fired when they refused to sign off on a whitewashed investigation report.

One of the scientists who signed the statement is Dr. Kurt Gottfried, an emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and chairman of the board of directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists. In an article in The New York Times, Gottfriend said the administration had “engaged in practices that are in conflict with the spirit of science and the scientific method” and displayed a “cavalier attitude towards science” that could place at risk the nation’s long-term prosperity, health and military prowess.

In the same Times article, Dr. Sidney Drell, an emeritus professor of physics at Stanford who has advised the government on issues of national security for some 40 years and has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said the overall findings of the statement rang true to him. “I am concerned that the scientific advice coming into this administration seems to me very narrow. … The input from individuals whose views are not in the main line of their policy don’t seem to be sought or welcomed,” he said.

Todd Tollefson is an activist in Seattle. He can be reached at commiett@yahoo.com.



Summary of scientists’ findings

“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 non-scientist to a senior position in the president’s scientific advisory staff; and dismissing highly qualified scientific advisors.

“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.”

(Scientific Inquiry in Policy Making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science, www.ucsusa.org.)