When the Bush administration has a political objective, it doesn't let science get in its way. Yesterday, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report documenting a host of new examples in which Bush officials have inappropriately interfered with scientific judgment to support the president's predetermined agenda.
Among other things, the administration has sought to ensure the political fealty of scientific advisory committees; suppressed information on environmental damage from mountaintop mining; and doctored data to downplay risks to endangered species.
These findings build on the record documented by UCS in an earlier report released in February. In conjunction with that report, UCS unveiled a statement signed by 62 distinguished scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, blasting the administration's politicization of science (a problem also highlighted in a recent report by the Center for American Progress and OMB Watch). Since then, 4,000 scientists have added their names to the statement, including 28 more Nobel laureates.
There is plenty of reason for this growing concern. Consider the administration's handling of scientific advisory committees. In April, the president's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, issued a rebuttal to the February UCS report, saying "the accusation of a litmus test that must be met before someone can serve on an advisory panel is preposterous." However, the new UCS report casts significant doubt on this assertion.
For instance, Sharon Smith, chair of the University of Miami's marine biology department, informed UCS that she was summarily rejected for a position on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission "after she gave a less-than-enthusiastic answer in response to a question from the White House personnel office about whether she supported President Bush."
Likewise, two recently appointed members of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research – Richard Myers of Stanford University and George Weinstock of Baylor College of Medicine – report that White House representatives asked inappropriate questions about their political views. Myers was initially denied a spot on the committee, apparently because he refused to discuss his opinion of President Bush, but was ultimately approved after a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health (where the committee is housed) intervened on his behalf. Weinstock told UCS that his answers regarding President Bush must have been "innocuous enough to be palatable," adding, "There is no doubt in my mind that these questions represented a political litmus test."
Perhaps most dramatic, Gerald T. Keusch, who oversaw advisory committee appointments at a branch of NIH, recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the Bush administration approved only seven of his 26 advisory-board nominations over three years. In one case, Bush officials explained to Keusch that they had rejected Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate in medicine, "because he had signed too many full-page letters in the New York Times critical of President Bush."
The administration has also shown no reluctance to shape scientific findings in service to its political agenda. In one case, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Stephen Griles, a former lobbyist for the mining industry, directed agency scientists and staff to drop any consideration of alternatives that could minimize environmental damage from mountaintop mining, which the administration was seeking to boost. "We were flabbergasted and outraged," one high-ranking staff scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Service told UCS.
Bush officials also intervened on a host of endangered species issues, according to the UCS report. Just this past May, the administration proposed a new policy – spearheaded by former timber-industry lawyer Mark Rutzick, a special adviser at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – to add hatchery-raised salmon to the count of wild salmon, which could affect whether the Coho salmon is listed as endangered. A distinguished scientific advisory panel counseled against this action, but the administration suppressed its findings. "The members of the panel were told to either strip out our recommendations or see our report end up in a drawer," according to the panel's lead scientist, Robert Paine, a renowned ecologist at the University of Washington.
The administration has similarly inflated the numbers of the endangered Florida panther to avoid triggering corrective action under the Endangered Species Act; suppressed information on the economic benefits of restoring the endangered bull trout in the Pacific Northwest; and misrepresented scientific findings to avoid listing the "tri-state" trumpeter swan as an endangered species.
This willingness to subvert science puts public health and the environment at risk. When science is stifled, policy makers and the public are denied crucial information to address problems in a timely way. The Bush administration has it backwards: science should inform policy judgments, not the other way around.
Reece Rushing is associate director for regulatory policy at the Center for American Progress.