Science policy politicized

The Bush administration demonstrated disdain for science by allowing key scientific posts in government to go unfilled for over a year

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The Bush administration has consistently drawn ire from the scientific community for its propensity to ignore, manipulate, and suppress science. From its earliest days, the administration demonstrated a lack of interest or, say critics, even disdain for science by allowing key scientific posts to go unfilled for over a year — including Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, National Institutes of Health director, and surgeon general. The FDA job took 20 months to fill, while the eventual surgeon general, Richard Carmona, ultimately accused the administration of political interference. In addition, a presidential science adviser was not chosen for nine months, and then was demoted in status from “assistant to the president” to “adviser.”

When critics began to accuse the administration of making politically-tinged appointments to science advisory panels in 2002, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman offered what would become a frequent refrain — “every administration does that.” But by August 2003, minority staff for the House Government Reform Committee countered by launching an investigation arguing that this administration was unique in having “repeatedly suppressed, distorted, or obstructed science to suit political and ideological goals.” The investigation chronicled lapses in scientific integrity across the government — from the National Cancer Institute, which falsely connected abortions to breast cancer, to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which killed a climate change section from a key report. Press secretary Scott McClellan said the minority report was “riddled with distortion.” The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), however, followed with its own analysis in 2004 that included a statement denouncing the administration’s tactics — signed by thousands of scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates and 63 recipients of the National Medal of Science.

White House science adviser Dr. John Marburger consistently rebuffed criticisms, which continued to grow. Reporters and oversight bodies frequently investigated instances of political interference, such as the Department of Interior inspector general’s report on an official who manipulated science to help land developers, or a House investigation of political edits to climate change research. Even the nation’s most famous scientific voice on global warming, Dr. James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was censored by a 20-something political appointee reportedly out to “make the president look good.” In April 2008, a UCS survey of 1,586 EPA scientists reported that 60 percent had experienced political interference in their work during the past five years, with 10 times as many scientists saying interference increased than said it decreased.

Surveys of the FDA, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found similar grievances by scientists. The White House did not reply to a request for comment, but Dr. Marburger has previously rebutted charges of politicized science and called the 2004 UCS report “deeply flawed.” “Science advice should not reflect political views,” he said in an online forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Public officials who make policy need to be able to distinguish between opinion and science, and the policy process is not well served by mixing the two.”

Follow-up:
A number of congressional oversight hearings have examined individual lapses in scientific integrity, and the Government Accountability Office included in its recommendations for the presidential transition specific suggestions to deal with the “perceived politicization of science,” such as ensuring scientific committees are independent and balanced. In an October letter, President-Elect Obama said environmental science, research, and education were damaged by politics and ideology. “In an Obama administration, the principle of scientific integrity will be an absolute,” he wrote.

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