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20.02.2004 476

Government bends, hides facts, say scientists

60 leading researchers, including Nobelists, detail suppression under Bush

By David Kohn
Sun Staff

February 19, 2004

Alarmed by what they call the "suppression and distortion of science" by the Bush administration, more than 60 top scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a scathing report yesterday detailing instances in which government agencies allegedly stifled legitimate research.

Written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the study included a range of allegations that: the EPA hid data supporting the existence of global warming; the Department of Agriculture muzzled research that might have damaged large-scale hog farming; and the administration stacked scientific advisory panels with politically biased members.

"This is absolutely unprecedented. There's something irrational about what this administration is doing," said retired Cornell physics professor Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the UCS board.

The report, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science," did not uncover new episodes of alleged tampering, but it did add previously unknown details - some from government scientists who had not spoken out before.

"Its major purpose was to show how comprehensive and widespread these practices are. It's the overall picture that is most distressing," said one of the signers, Rice University physicist Neal Lane.

Lane is a former director of the National Science Foundation, as well as the presidential science adviser during the Clinton administration.

President Bush's top science adviser disputed the report and called it disappointing.

"It makes sweeping generalizations about policy that are based on a random selection of incidents. I don't think these incidents add up to a case," said John Marburger, a physicist and director of the Federal Office of Science and Technology.

He called the signers "distinguished scientists and educators" but said they had misinterpreted the evidence.

Each of the incidents in the report had an innocent explanation, he said: "In all of these cases there is a supportable reason for taking these actions."

The report's backers questioned his claim. "It's quite apparent that scientific decisions are being made by political appointees," said one of the signers, Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Goldman, who oversaw regulation of pesticides and toxic chemicals for the EPA during the Clinton administration, said many of her former EPA colleagues were demoralized by rampant political interference.

Marburger, who said he had no plans to discuss the report with the president, defended Bush's views on research. "The president is quite supportive of science. He understands that science is the basis of innovation," he said.

Among the allegations included in the report:

  • The administration demanded that the EPA remove from a major report data supporting the notion of global warming.

  • The EPA withheld an analysis showing that the administration's plan to reduce air pollution was less effective than a competing proposal.

  • The Department of Agriculture stifled a researcher who was examining resistance to antibiotics in the swine industry.

  • Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, rejected qualified appointees to a committee on childhood lead poisoning, in favor of researchers friendly to the lead industry, including two with financial connections to it. The report details several instances in which the administration allegedly appointed biased researchers to such committees.

  • The Office of Management and Budget delayed a report that found high mercury levels in almost 1 in 10 women of childbearing age.

    Gottfried and others emphasized that such alleged tampering has concrete consequences. "These are not just abstractions," he said. "Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that's dangerous for children."

    The UCS report called on Congress to hold hearings on the allegations and asked the president to authorize Marburger to come up with new regulations prohibiting censorship and distortion of government scientific research.

    Some participants hoped the report would have more immediate consequences, forcing the administration to limit future interference.

    Goldman, for example, cited an Office of Management and Budget proposal to add another level of review to government-funded research. Critics call it a cynical attempt to trap controversial studies in a labyrnth of biased evaluations.

    "This is signaling that the scientific community is now watching what's going on," said David Michaels, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University who signed the report.

    Marburger said he would work with agencies to clarify the real story behind the alleged incidents but he saw no need for a comprehensive investigation.

    UCS is an independent watchdog group that often criticizes government science, particularly environmental and security policy. But the report's signers emphasized that this group represents a broad coalition of scientists, including many who don't normally speak on politically charged issues.

    "This is not Greenpeace. Presidential science advisers and Nobel Prize winners aren't normally an activist group," said Michaels.

    "It includes a lot of people who aren't concerned all that often," joked one signer, atmospheric scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, who won the Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work on global warming.

    Michaels has been a frequent critic of the administration's science policy but noted that some signers had served under Republican administrations, including Richard Garwin, who was a science adviser to President Richard M. Nixon.

    The signers also include current heads of several institutions, including David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, and Gerald Fischbach, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Columbia University.

    Gottfried called such participation unusual among leaders whose institutions depend heavily on federal grants. "They're taking a real risk doing this," he said.

    Some critics say they're worried that the Bush administration's policies could drive demoralized scientists away from respected government agencies.

    Gottfried said the censorship issue is particularly distasteful: "This is extremely offensive to scientists, much more than people realize. That's the scientific method - that we're allowed to say what we've discovered."

    Copyright © 2004,

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