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Government Bends, Hides Facts, Say Scientists

[Sad reminder of how self-interest affects sharing of information.]


Government bends, hides facts, say scientists
60 leading researchers, including Nobelists, detail suppression under Bush


By David Kohn - Baltimore 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, The Baltimore Sun

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