Science? What science?

The Bush administration's effort to manipulate scientific research has scientists from both sides of the partisan divide concerned.


Amanda Griscom
March 5, 2004 4:58AM (UTC)

In late February, after a star-studded, bipartisan lineup of Nobel laureates and leading American scientists accused the Bush administration of misusing and distorting science to serve political ends, the initial response from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was flat-out denial. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy chief John Marburger dismissed the scientists' complaints as a "conspiracy report" that cobbled together "disconnected issues that rubbed somebody the wrong way." Marburger told the press he had no intention of conducting an internal investigation or passing the report along to higher-ups.

Perhaps he should have dropped them a memo.

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Last week, Marburger's superiors essentially confirmed, albeit inadvertently, the science community's charges. On Friday, President Bush let go two members of his Council on Bioethics -- a highly regarded scientist and a moral philosopher, both known for advocating research on human embryo cells -- and replaced them with three cherry-picked scientists more ideologically aligned with the administration's conservative constituency, which opposes stem-cell research.

The scientist who was dismissed from the council, Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco, told Muckraker she was given the boot for political reasons: Her opinions challenge those of the president and the council's director, University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass, who has directly criticized her views in meetings. "Clearly Bush is stacking the council with more like-minded and consonant members," Blackburn said. "It dramatically changes the balance of viewpoints in the council to have three more people who, based on their track records, are very much more socially conservative."

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which organized the scientists' statement of protest to coincide with the release of a report titled "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science," saw the Bush administration's dismissal of Blackburn as an offensive and foolhardy move on the heels of the group's widely publicized allegations. "This clearly adds insult to injury," said the group's president, Kevin Knobloch. "At a time when they should be reaching out to the scientific community and reassuring us, trying to bridge the growing disconnect, they're indicating that they don't take our concerns seriously."

The administration's alleged hijacking and perversion of science has particularly stark implications for the environment, as pointed out in "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," a recent cover story in the Nation by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "The Bush White House is purging, censoring, and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the administration's corporate paymasters or challenges the ideological underpinnings of their radical anti-environmental agenda," Kennedy seethed.

Kennedy's article and the UCS report both invoke example after example of the Bush administration's efforts to suppress and manipulate environmental science: The U.S. EPA's notorious concealment of evidence that air quality in Manhattan was hazardous after 9/11; its decision to replace prominent scientists on an advisory committee on lead regulations with "experts" supported by the lead industry; its delay in releasing research on the damaging effects of mercury on children's health; its repeated suppression of global-warming science. But though the Kennedy article was clearly charged with high-octane political rhetoric, the Bush administration can't write off the scientists' statement as a partisan attack: It was signed by more than half a dozen high-profile Republicans, including Lewis Branscomb, director of the National Bureau of Standards under Nixon; Richard Garwin, a member of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee under Nixon; W.K.H. Panofsky, a PSAC member under Eisenhower; and Norman Ramsey, science advisor to NATO under Eisenhower.

Russell Train, administrator of the EPA under Nixon and Ford, has also been publicly supportive of the UCS report. "I don't see it as a partisan issue at all," Train told the New York Times in a Feb. 19 article by James Glanz. "If it becomes that way, it's because the White House chooses to make it a partisan issue."

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Kurt Gottfried, chair of the UCS board and a Cornell University professor emeritus of physics, told Muckraker that his organization's report was itself based on the principles of scientific study: "In science, if you examine a lot of events, you can infer a pattern connecting them that has meaning -- even if you don't have a clear formula or equation explaining them. In this case we examined a large set of incidences -- not a small set -- and there is a certain commonality to them [revealing] that the Bush administration consistently [censors] scientific evidence and opinions that run contrary to its goals."

Gottfried added that the report is just a start: "It's a good effort but certainly not as comprehensive and authoritative as it could be. We can't subpoena all the witnesses or documents [necessary] to investigate the breadth and depth of the problem -- that's a job for Congress." It's a good thing, then, that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has agreed to schedule an oversight hearing next week in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which he chairs, to investigate concerns about the Bush administration's misuse of science. "The hearing will focus on the Union of Concerned Scientists' report," said Rebecca Hanks, communications director for the committee. Though it hasn't yet been officially announced, it is tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday, she said.

"The hearing may not resolve anything, but it will bring more air time to the UCS report and raise public awareness about our concerns," said David Michaels, one of the signers of the scientists' statement and former assistant secretary for environment, safety and health at the Department of Energy under Clinton. And public awareness, particularly in an election year, is the most powerful form of checks and balances.

Blackburn, too, was heartened to hear of the upcoming congressional hearing. "[My dismissal] fits into a larger pattern of which the media, the public, and now Congress are growing ever more critical," she said, sounding generally upbeat about her exile. "It's like that old Chinese curse says: 'May you live in interesting times.'"

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Managing "Big Muddy"
"Basically, the Army Corps has flipped us the bird -- at a time when it's supposed to be saving the birds."

That's how Eric Eckl, spokesperson for American Rivers, sums up the Army Corps of Engineers' new plan to manage the Missouri River, released on Friday to blistering protest and threats of a new round of lawsuits from the environmental community.

The plan disregards more than a decade of calls to restore the natural flows of the beloved "Big Muddy" -- calls from scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Academy of Sciences, and from a federal court last year that demanded the Corps lower river flows to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

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Since about 1990, scientists have identified an increasingly pressing need to recreate more natural spring and summer flows in the Missouri -- whose waters are controlled by six enormous hydroelectric dams -- to prevent extinction of the river's endangered and threatened populations of sturgeon, tern and plover, and guard against future flooding. Just this past December, scientists from the FWS confirmed once again the need to alter flows, even after the research team was replaced at the 11th hour with new scientists at the Corps' behest.

The environmental community was generally pleased with the new team's results, but according to Chad Smith, director of the Nebraska field office for American Rivers, "In retrospect, it's become clear that the new team amended a 300-page report in such a hurry that they created loopholes which the Corps has been able to exploit."

Smith argues that the loopholes allow the Corps to manufacture 1,200 acres of artificial habitat for imperiled species rather than take the more effective and less costly route of restoring the river's natural flows. And the Corps plans to do it in a mere four months, by July 1, rather than in the several-year time frame that FWS scientists predicted it would take.

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"This would not only be an extraordinarily irresponsible rush job," said Smith. "It's impossible. It simply can't be done."

But Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife, and parks, says his agency supports the Corps' interpretation of the scientific results. "This is not a loophole, it's written in black and white," says Manson. "The biological opinion says that if the Corps can create the new habitat, they can operate at higher flows. Only the Corps knows if they can recreate the habitat effectively in that time frame; and if they can, that's just fine."

Beltway politicians have also jumped into the fray. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., whose state straddles a northern section of the Missouri and would benefit from increased recreation as a result of healthier fish and bird populations and higher water levels in reservoirs, criticized the plan on Friday: "I am disappointed that the best the Corps can come up with is a document that provides little more than the status quo [and] blatantly ignores sound science."

On the other side of the boxing ring is Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who objects vehemently to river-flow changes, arguing that they would cripple the barge industry in his state as well as the farmers who ship their cargo up and down the river. Bond is so vocal about the issue that when President Bush attended a fundraiser for the senator this past summer, he appeased Bond with a declaration that no federal agency should govern the flow of the longest river in America.

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Less than a week before the Corps came out with its revised plan, Bond was sounding his battle cry against river-flow changes. "Unless clarified, the Department of Interior's 2003 Missouri River biological opinion will cause extreme harm to farmers, transporters, electrical consumers, and municipalities on the lower Missouri and Mississippi rivers," Bond said at a meeting with industry representatives on Feb. 21.

After the plan was unveiled, Bond's office issued a press release that evoked Bush's commitment, saying the senator has "talked to the president and high-level administration officials on a number of occasions, and will continue to push the administration to make good on its promise."

But environmental groups are also ready to rumble. "We've been fighting this fight for years, with the support of local communities, federal courts and the soundest science. You can be sure we aren't going to stop now," says Eckl, whose organization is pursuing a lawsuit against the Corps and intends to integrate these new developments into the case. "The scientific evidence is so overwhelmingly stacked against this plan that there's simply no way a federal court can condone it."

Enviros are up against a formidable foe, given that Bush himself has a vested interest in Missouri, a swing state with more electoral votes than any of the six other states that share the river. But the president has been conspicuously quiet on the issue lately, having said nothing about it in his recent campaign visits to the state, despite election-year pressure to keep his Missouri constituency happy. Perhaps he realizes that this issue is a political lightning rod -- if he grabs hold of it, environmentalists may use it to fry him in other Missouri River basin states this election season.

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The Corps will accept public comments on its Missouri River management plan between March 5 and March 19.

Muck it up

Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to muckraker@gristmagazine.com.

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Amanda Griscom

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