When science becomes fiction

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published February 11, 2005 12:50PM (EST)

It looks like it's time to add one more species to the "endangered" list at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: scientific facts.

When asked to respond anonymously to a survey regarding their work that was conducted by the watchdog groups Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists, some scientists received memos from higher-ups ordering them not to answer, even from home and on their personal time.

The results of the anonymous survey suggest why certain agency leaders might not have wanted the scientists' opinions to become public. Some 400 of the 1400 biologists, ecologists and botanists responded -- despite the intimidation -- and many of them reported that scientific data at U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been polluted by politics.

Forty-four percent of those who work on endangered-species issues said that they have been ordered to avoid findings that would require greater protections for wildlife. And one fifth of the agency's scientists who responded to the survey revealed that they have been personally directed to alter or omit technical information from scientific documents.

Perhaps there's a connection with President Bush's freshly minted budget: It calls for a $3 million reduction in money for endangered-species protection, according to the L.A. Times.

In a phone interview with War Room, Lexi Schultz, the Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, helped us sort out the survey's rather astonishing results: "This means that there is somebody who is a non-scientist saying: 'Change the data, I don't like the facts you've given me. So change the facts.'"

"It's shocking," she added, "that 20 percent of the scientists say that it's happened to them."

It may seem shocking -- but then again, it's happened under an administration where politics have ruled over science across an entire range of environmental policy, from oil drilling to global warming to mercury pollution. Perhaps the scientists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife should form a secret support group with their colleagues over at the Environmental Protection Agency who work on mercury pollution. They could hold their meetings at those toxic Superfund sites that aren't being cleaned up, since Superfund is currently bankrupt. That way they wouldn't have to worry so much about a crackdown by higher-ups looking to manipulate their work; it's not too likely the wardens of Bush administration policy would go looking for them there.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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