War on science

Pub date February 27, 2008

› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Over the past eight years, the lives of millions of people in the United States and beyond have been endangered by the US government. No, I’m not talking about the war in Iraq. I’m talking about the quiet, systematic war the government has been waging against science.

You may have heard about gross examples of the government censoring scientific documents. For example, it was widely reported last year that a government regulatory group excised at least half the statements Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberding was set to make at a congressional hearing about how climate change will affect public health. You may also have heard about the scandal in 2004 when a whistleblower at the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that five of the seven members on a panel of "independent experts" stood to gain financially from shutting down a scientific investigation of a controversial mining technique called "hydraulic fracturing." The panel claimed that in its expert opinion, the technique didn’t require regulation, despite many scientists’ concerns that it might pollute groundwater.

But these are the stories that hit the headlines. There are hundreds more where they came from, and many of them are documented meticulously in a study released earlier this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called "Federal Science and the Public Good." (Download it for free online at http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/restoring/federal-science.html.)

The UCS report documents, in chilling detail, how agencies have fired scientists who disagreed with government policies. For example, in 2003, experts in nuclear physics were dismissed from a panel within the National Nuclear Security Administration because some of them had published about how the George W. Bush administration’s beloved "bunker buster" weapons weren’t very effective. And scientists who spoke out against the administration’s stem cell policy were booted from the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Worse, the government has falsified scientific studies to bolster its policies and undergird its ideological positions. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was when the EPA lied outright to Americans that the air around ground zero directly after Sept. 11 was safe to breathe. In fact, according to the UCS report, the EPA made this statement without even testing the air. As a result, the authors of the report write, "thousands of rescue workers now plagued by crippling lung ailments continue to feel the impact of this public deception." There’s also an example of the Food and Drug Administration inventing a fake study to support its decision to approve the drug Ketek, along with many others.

Most intriguing, though, is the UCS report’s suggestion that many federal regulatory agencies may in fact be breaking the law by cutting real science out of government policy decisions. Both the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act require the EPA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to base their decisions on "the best scientific data available." And yet the UCS has documented countless examples of both agencies, as well as others, refusing to take into account the latest research on climate change, animal populations, and systems biology.

It would be intriguing to see a lawsuit based on the fact that these agencies aren’t using "the best scientific data available," but the UCS doesn’t suggest that as a remedy. Instead, the report concludes by looking to the future of federally funded science, suggesting ways the next presidential administration might remedy the failures of the last.

First on the agenda would be to bring a scientific adviser back into the cabinet. (Bush dismissed this adviser from the cabinet.) The UCS also suggests that the next president repeal Executive Order 13422, which gave an obscure regulatory body known as the Office of Management and Budget a lot of control over how regulatory agencies handle science. Currently the OMB has the power to revise the findings of scientists within those agencies, despite the fact that the OMB has little to no scientific expertise. And finally, the UCS asks that the government extend protections to whistleblowers within the government who come forward to report on the very kinds of abuses the UCS has reported (often with the help of whistleblowers who lost their jobs or worse).

Hopefully the next presidential administration will relegate this report to the status of historical document instead of a warning about our future. Science is crucial to the management of the nation, and without it we’re no better than a medieval kingdom.

Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is fifteen feet tall, and she has a federal agency science report that proves it.