When Science Inconveniences Bush
By Stephen Leahy*
Scientists denounce what they see as obsessive attempts by the White House to muzzle them and to eliminate research that it doesn't like.
TORONTO - The unprecedented efforts of the administration of President George W. Bush to gag and suppress research findings it doesn't like are putting science in the United States at risk, say experts.
The case of James Hansen, the leading scientist on global warming at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who revealed in January that he had been censored by the government, is evidence of the White House's discomfort with scientists whose findings contradict the Bush administration's environmental policies.
Already in 2004 a prominent group of scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 19 winners of the U.S. National Medal of Science, signed an open letter accusing the Bush administration of deliberately distorting scientific fact "for partisan political ends."
The prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences also called in 2004 for an end to the use of political litmus tests, including asking whether scientists supported President Bush when being interviewed to serve on scientific advisory committees.
In 2002, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Mike Kelly was pressured to authorize a decision to allow increased pumping of irrigation water from Klamath River in the northwestern state of Washington that would benefit local Bush supporters, including big contributors from agribusiness.
Kelly's own analysis clearly showed that lowering river water levels would harm the endangered coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), which is protected under U.S. law. "They wanted me to do something illegal and I resigned," Kelly told Tierramerica.
Political appointees, including White House political advisor Karl Rove, had Kelly's analysis replaced, and the additional water was diverted from the river. The next year more than 30,000 adult coho salmon and hundreds of thousands of their young died due to low water levels, said the biologist.
"When the Bush administration gets a scientific answer they don't like, they suppress it or change it," said Kelly, who spent 10 years at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"There is a systematic and obsessive attempt to control information, no matter what the science finds," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an alliance of government scientists and natural resource professionals.
"Hundreds of major scientific studies [and] local field reports are being called into question for non-scientific reasons," such as when scientific findings contradict federal policy or corporate-business interests, Ruch told Tierramerica.
The Bush administration's clumsy attempts to suppress the science explaining climate change and global warming are the best known.
In September 2002, political appointees, including former oil company lobbyists, removed a section on global warming from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) annual report.
In June 2003, demands for extensive changes in a global warming portion of an EPA report forced the federal agency to remove the entire section.
And then, at the end of last year, government officials ordered NASA expert Hansen to remove data from the Internet stating that 2005 could be the warmest year on record.
Hansen was soon proven correct and he went to the media in January to talk about the many attempts to prevent him from speaking about climate change.
"Hansen wasn't allowed to talk to reporters without permission, and permission was denied a number of times," says Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a non-governmental group that seeks to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate transparency.
"And when Hansen was allowed to talk, he was supposed to present the other side (of the issue) or face dire consequences," Devine told Tierramérica. "It's unprecedented intimidation and oppression unlike anything in the 27 years I have been with GAP."
Such intimidation is also illegal under U.S. laws protecting whistleblowers who denounce corruption within their organizations and preventing governments from gagging their employees. However most scientists don't know the laws and rarely fight back against attempts to gag them, he said.
"I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been controlled as it is now," Hansen, now one of GAP's clients, said recently.
The consequences of this abuse are dire according to Michael Halpern, who heads the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a U.S.-based alliance of scientists and citizens. "This distortion of science is undermining what has been a huge part of America's economic success," Halpern told Tierramérica.
It is also leading to unnecessary deaths, he said. Political appointees at the EPA, often from industry, have ignored recommendations made by scientists when setting new air pollution rules on mercury and soot emissions.
Elsewhere in the U.S. government, officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suppressed research showing that a widely-used pain medication, Vioxx, was linked to as many as 139,00 heart attacks and strokes.
Bush appointees have not only put business-friendly rules in place, they have made them based on their religious conservatism, said Halpern.
An FDA official overruled scientific panels and denied public access to an emergency contraceptive called "Plan B". And the federal government's National Cancer Institute suggested there are links between abortion and breast cancer despite the fact there is no scientifically-established connection, he said.
"Policy-makers need access to accurate and impartial scientific information," said Halpern. "We're facing an unprecedented problem that threatens American democracy."
* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.