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Science and the Next President « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/science.jpgFlickr: Goldmund100

*“Just think about this: In four months — in just four months — we will have an administration that actually believes in science.”

That’s what former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner told a cheering crowd during his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It was a not-so-subtle jab at what many scientists have called the Bush administration’s “war on science.”

For the past eight years, many scientists have accused the Bush administration of tampering with, suppressing or ignoring scientific findings that conflicted with its policies. They cite as evidence of politics trumping science: a regulator at the Environmental Protection Agency being fired after aggressively pursing the Dow Chemical Co. to clean up its contamination of a river watershed; partisan editing by a nonscientist of scientific findings on endangered species, and interference by political appointees in the scientific process.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

With the Bush administration leaving on Jan. 20, 2009, many scientists want to know what they can expect from the next president.

Unfortunately, neither Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, nor Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, has made science a priority on the campaign trail, says Shawn Lawrence Otto, chief executive of ScienceDebate 2008.

The nonpartisan organization of roughly 38,000 scientists and engineers was formed last year to press the presidential candidates to articulate their views on the relationship between science and government. A central question is what the next president could do to restore scientific integrity.

“Both candidates,” Otto said, “have said that [scientific integrity is] a strong value of theirs. Both have talked about the need for fact-based decision- making…I think they have both heard, loud and clear, that scientists, in particular, and the American public, in general, are fed up with facts being doctored with to fit political dogma.”

Beyond that, Otto complained, neither McCain nor Obama have offered any real specifics on how to win back the faith of scientists and citizens. “Scientists are very concerned,” Otto said, “about the tendency of elected officials to deny facts in favor of political spin, which is placing the United States at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. Both in terms of the quality of students we’re turning out; and in terms of our ability to draw new students [to the U.S.]”

But after eight years of science taking a back seat to the demands of politics and commercial interests, it won’t be so easy for the next president to reverse the course of the Bush administration.

That’s the view of Rick Piltz, director of the nonpartisan Climate Science Watch. For 10 years, Piltz worked for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, a joint project of 13 government agencies, where he says he saw firsthand the conflicts between the White House and government scientists. Piltz worked in an office that supports interagency leadership on climate science research — research that some federal employees have accused the Bush administration of distorting to achieve political goals.

One thing Piltz would like to see changed by the next president is the influence that political appointees have had over government scientists during the Bush administration. Many scientists have complained that their research findings were altered by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to avoid spending money on the problems the research raised.

Piltz says this situation can be corrected by requiring that communications between political appointees and agency scientists or managers be transparent.

“You should be able to see…the comments [to determine if they are] scientifically legitimate,” he said. “Because Congress doesn’t tell White House political appointees to make rules. It tells the EPA to make rules and then Congress funds them to make those rules.”

Piltz also recommends increasing the transparency of regulatory advisory panels at the EPA and the National Institutes for Health and the Centers for Disease Control, among others. For example, under the Bush administration, Piltz charges that there have been “remarkable examples of scientific experts getting kicked off a panel because their expected views…are not the views of the White House.”

One congressional investigation revealed that Deborah Rice, a Maine toxicologist, was fired from her position as chairwoman of an EPA chemical review panel at the request of the chemical industry simply because of her scientific expertise. The industry’s lobby group charged that Rice had a conflict of interest because she had previously given expert testimony to the state of Maine recommending a ban on a chemical, a flame retardant called deca, under review by the EPA panel.

According to Piltz, if advisory panel proceedings were more transparent, such “painstaking investigations and whistleblowing” by Congress could be avoided.

Piltz acknowledges that steps toward greater transparency are “complicated and don’t automatically fix” things, because they require restructuring of government agencies and the insertion of better checks and balances.

It’s no wonder, then, that McCain and Obama haven’t exactly taken the time to break these issues down for the public. “It’s way more than what you get just by asking [the candidates] a very general question, because they’ll all sound very good [answering that],” he said. “But we now have problems…that require vigilant follow-up by the media and the public-interest community and the scientists themselves.”

There are many ways to bolster scientific integrity that aren’t so complicated, contends Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the non-partisan Union of Concerned Scientists.

For starters, her organization wants scientists who blow the whistle on government shenanigans to be protected from dismissal or demotion. With that protection, she says, scientists can “share information with someone, and they won’t have to give up their jobs to do that.”

Second, Grifo says scientists — as well as all government employees — need to be reassured about their First Amendment rights. The Union of Concerned Scientists is pushing for changes in the government’s media policies of science-related agencies that would allow scientists to speak freely with reporters.

“We’ve seen the fundamental rights of scientists to express their views…being disrupted,” Grifo told me. In a survey by the organization of more than 1,500 EPA employees, more than half said they could not speak openly with the news media. This presents a problem for taxpayers, Grifo said, who want to know what government employees are up to.

Finally, she continued, the next president and his political appointees need to be candid when policy considerations are deemed more important than the science. “If you want to take scientific information and ignore it, or only pay attention to half of it, that’s a policy decision and you need to be clear about it,” she said. “What we’ve seen [over the last eight years], is an administration not willing to take that step and [instead just] monkeying with the science.”

Some experts believe that the Bush administration’s record of politicizing science has so heightened public awareness of the problem that the next president won’t be able to pursue business-as-usual.

John Young is a retired federal biologist who worked 15 years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, before that, 15 at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. He says that the next administration should expect more vigilance from the public on matters related to science.

“The record of the past eight years,” said Young, “likely makes it more difficult for an upcoming administration to quash scientific information…However, the political appointees who will continue to run agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have tremendous influence on what science is applied and when it is applied.”

That’s why, he says, it’s up to the press and non-governmental organizations to “scrutinize the qualifications, affiliations and performance” of those political appointees.

Among government scientists, Young suspects, there’s a sense of skepticism and “cautious optimism” toward the next occupant of the White House.

“[W]ith politicians, you can never be sure if they will follow through on their many promises,” he said. “However, I don’t think either one as president could form an administration that would be more devious than the current one.”

While that may just be a hope — it’s one being echoed throughout the scientific community.

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