Keeping America safer -- with science

As more evidence surfaces that the Bush administration can't be bothered with scientific accuracy, the ACLU tries framing science as a national security issue.

Published June 21, 2005 9:42PM (EDT)

Species on the government's endangered list can't seem to catch a break under the Bush administration.

Back in February, we noted that a survey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found that 20 percent of them had been instructed to alter or remove data from scientific documents -- right around the time the Bush administration slashed funding for endangered species protection by $3 million.

Yesterday, a group of 163 concerned scientists sent Fish and Wildlife an open letter expressing concern about another of its policies on endangered species: Under a rule introduced in January, Fish and Wildlife staff who work in the service's southwestern division are not permitted to consider new scientific data on the genetic makeup of endangered species when evaluating whether those species can safely be removed from the endangered list. According to the Denver Post, "The information used to determine whether all distinct lines within species need to be protected is limited to data available when the species was first listed." And disregarding more recent findings can leave scientists relying on some pretty moldy data; as the Post noted, "Some species have been on the endangered list for more than 30 years."

A single species may have multiple genetically distinct lines, and that genetic diversity helps the species to thrive. But much of the information that scientists now have on species' genetic diversity wasn't available 30 years ago. Former Fish and Wildlife biologist Sally Stefferud, who is one of the letter's signatories, told the Post that the new policy is essentially a loophole that allows some genetic lines to be moved off the endangered list: "If you accept the premise that all populations of a species are interchangeable, you have much more leeway to let some be wiped out." But, because "genetic diversityis the basis of their survival," Stefferud noted in a press release, letting those populations be eliminated puts the endangered species themselves at greater risk.

Of course, rejecting scientific findings that don't serve its purposes is nothing new for the Bush administration, and previous revelations -- about its downplaying the link between emissions and global warming, its deleting evidence of global warming from a Group of Eight nations climate change plan and its editing out findings showing that increased cattle grazing would harm wildlife and water quality -- haven't done much to make the administration change course.

Perhaps that's why the ACLU is now trying a new tack. In a report released today, the ACLU says that the pervasive assault on scientific study doesn't just affect the environment -- it's actually making Americans less safe. The report, entitled "Science Under Siege: The Bush Administration's Assault on Scientific Freedom and Academic Inquiry," identifies a post-9/11 trend toward repressing scientific findings by designating them as classified or sensitive, restricting access to technology used in basic research and denying foreign students access to research projects. Restrictions like these are frequently imposed in the name of national security, but "Science Under Siege" indicates that they often come at a high cost to taxpayers: The price tag for classifying information in 2003 alone was $6.5 billion. And, the report notes, the classification trend prevents information sharing, meaning that many government officials lack access to information that could help prevent a terrorist attack. The ACLU also contends that barring foreign students from scientific inquiry fuels resentment toward the U.S. In a press release, ACLU Technology and Liberty Project director Barry Steinhardt fleshed out the connection between science and security: "The future security of our nation will flow from our global scientific strength and leadership. Attempts to achieve security through control and repression of information will never work, and will only undermine that leadership."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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