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Rescuing Science From Politics

The Union of Concerned Scientists offers suggestions "for restoring scientific integrity to policy making" at the federal level.

World Trade Center rescuers are plagued with lung ailments after being told the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports school children's vinyl lunch boxes contain "no instances of hazardous levels" of lead when its own tests have shown that 20 percent of the lunch boxes contain unsafe levels and one has 16 times the safe amount. Two reports formulated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists on the status of bull trout, listed as an endangered species, are shelved and the third -- required by law to be released -- removes 86 percent of the critical habitat originally called for. 

These are a few of the abuses of scientific findings cited in a report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists that calls for the next president and Congress to assure scientific freedom and integrity within federal agencies.

The group documented its findings in an "A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science," listing 84 examples of political interference in 24 federal agencies from 2001 to 2007.

UCS surveys have shown that 1,191 scientists across nine federal agencies have reported that they fear retaliation for openly expressing their concerns about the mission-driven work of their agencies.

Has public health and safety been compromised by the administration's approach to scientific information?

"Certainly," said Michael Halpern, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. "You need access to the best available science to make fully informed decisions. If decision makers don't have access to the best available scientific information, it's inevitable that the quality of the decisions will suffer."

The 52-page UCS report describes a wide range of abuses, including falsifying data; tampering with scientific procedures; selectively editing documents; delaying release of scientific findings; intimidation, coercion and censoring of scientists; conflicts of interest; and manipulation of scientific advisory panels.

It notes that many instances of abuse can be traced to the Bush administration's argument for a "unitary executive" -- the assertion that the executive branch of government has the right to bypass the other two branches of government when it believes they've improperly infringed on executive power.

The Bull and the Trout

John Young, the lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist on the conservation of bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, experienced that directly when, after seven years of study, scientists from several federal agencies assisted by scientists from state agencies and others representing the timber and hydro-electric industries produced three documents required by the ESA -- a recovery plan for bull trout, a five-year status review and a critical habitat rule. When the first two were shelved and the third was manipulated beyond recognition, Young said, "policy trumped science."

"The policymakers are all political appointees," he said. "They rule. You can bring all the peer-reviewed science to them and they can simply hold the documents and not release them."

Young said what the agency eventually released was based on a faulty economic analysis influenced by an unwritten policy imposed by those above him to limit any restrictions on land use in the short term and make the ESA appear wasteful and unnecessary in the long term.

"My belief is they can't get the votes to change the ESA in Congress, so they undermine the law and agency mission with policy whenever they can," he said. The result, he said, is a situation where public interest groups sue to have the proper procedures followed, resulting in further delays, inefficiencies and government waste.

Young is clearly appalled at the waste of taxpayer money caused by lawsuits, but he believes litigation often is necessary to assure that good science is used in decision making. He said lawsuits wouldn't be necessary if "the policymakers and the agency followed the law and the peer-reviewed science in the first place." Young retired from the USFWS in 2005.

Joan Jewett, chief of public affairs for the Pacific region of the USFWS, said she couldn't respond to what Young said about the critical habitat rule because the agency is being sued by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies on that issue. She did note that the reason habitat was excluded from the report was some of the habitat listed in the report was covered by other management plans.

"This is a policy call," she said. "The decision was made that we were not going to lay on another layer of regulations (on those areas). It is fully within the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to make those kinds of policy decisions."

She acknowledged that the other two reports have not been released, saying that a new regional director was named in 2006 and he was dissatisfied with the reports submitted at that time. She said several state agencies had notified the agency that information they had provided had not been adequately addressed in the five-year review, and that a few months later the region received "new guidance from the agency on our distinct population segment policy," which addresses methods of assessing individual populations of species and sub-species.

The new director decided to convene another panel of scientists, some from the previous group and some new to the study. Jewett says the region plans to release the five-year review this spring. She is not sure when the draft recovery plan will be released.

Treading Controversial Ground

Ways the government has inhibited or controlled release of scientific findings, according to the UCS report, include: requiring that regulations consider one-sided market data or conform to incomplete cost-benefit analyses; increasing the number of classified documents, and limiting the release of information on toxic substances.

Requests for a response to the report from the president's Office of Science and Technology were not answered. However, John Marburger, director of the office and the president's chief science adviser, characterized a 2004 UCS scientific integrity report as "not soundly based" in an interview with National Public Radio in 2006.

He said the report was "primarily directed at a relatively small number of very contentious areas like climate change, areas that we know are controversial." He cited stem cell research as another area "where the issues are hardly scientific.

"They're ethical issues or economic issues -- issues that have acquired a political edge," he said.

The UCS itself has been criticized by various individuals and groups as being "left of center" and of having an activist agenda rather than a predominately scientific mission. The organization describes itself as "a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world."

Central to much of the UCS's concern is that many of these practices and rulings will not end with the present administration but will become embedded in agency policy. "It's difficult to find a politician who likes to give up power," Halpern noted.

"There are many, many subtle ways that the scientific process has been subverted in the past several years," he said. "Many of these practices will continue unless overturned. Systemic changes will persist indefinitely unless the next administration takes action."

Making Things Better

Solutions? Chief among those cited in the report is guaranteeing whistle-blower protection to scientists who report abuse or manipulation of data.

Assuring transparency in government is another goal. The report calls for making government information widely available to the public through online access and universal electronic reporting, with databases and reports from agencies linked electronically so that they can be broadly searchable. It suggests transparency requirements could be adapted for federal agencies based on the Food and Drug Administrations Amendments Act of 2007.

The report is specific in its suggestions for reform, which include limiting the Office of Management and Budget's centralized review powers, reforming the procedures for classifying documents and ending a revolving door practice from positions in industry to advisory boards and regulatory positions in agencies.

Legislation addressing several of these issues has been advanced and several bills are in play in Congress. The UCS claims the Food and Drug Revitalization Act, passed in late 2007, as a victory. It requires the agency to publicize the scientific basis for its decisions and addresses the problem of conflicts of interest on advisory panels.

More recently, Halpern reported Senate passage of a whistle-blower bill that will protect Consumer Product Safety Administration scientists as well as scientists of private companies subject to CPSA's regulations. The bill also allows for online reporting of consumer complaints and online listing of research reports.

"There's no one omnibus legislative fix for restoring scientific integrity to policy making," Halpern said. "It's much too complex an issue and different scientific agencies work in different ways."

One priority that Halpern zeroed in on is restoring the role of the nation's top scientist to a cabinet-level position, assuring a scientist is at the table when key decisions are made. The UCS report calls on Congress to reinstate the Office of Science and Technology Policy and make the president's chief science adviser the director of the agency.

"The next president needs to set a clear path by sending a message that science will be respected in his or her administration," he said. "The top priority is to create an environment that allows scientists to speak openly about their research - communicating fully with peers, communicating fully with media, with the Congress and the public."

About 15,000 scientists, including 52 Nobel laureates, have added their signatures to the UCS statement on scientific integrity.