Federal

In Bush Administration, Policies Drive Science, Scholars’ Group Claims

By Debra Viadero — March 03, 2004 3 min read
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right The report, “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,” is available from the The Union of Concerned Scientists. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Thousands were clamoring last week to add their names to a statement accusing the Bush administration of deliberately manipulating, suppressing, and ignoring scientific advice that conflicts with White House policy.

Initially signed by 60 prominent scientists, researchers, and Nobel laureates, the statement calls on Congress and the executive branch to put an end to tactics that they contend are undermining science across a wide range of federal agencies and policy areas. The list of policy areas includes some issues, such as sex education and the regulation of lead levels, that affect the nation’s schoolchildren.

But John H. Marburger III, the director of the White House office of science and technology policy, called the accusations “disappointing.”

“They make sweeping generalizations about the administration based on what appears to be a miscellany of criticisms, many of which have been made in the past by partisan political figures and advocacy organizations,” he said in a statement issued by his office.

‘Big Difference’

The scientists’ petition was released Feb. 18 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., that has drawn headlines before for opposing federal policy on global warming and other issues. The group also issued a report the same day that describes the scientists’ accusations in greater detail.

Suzanne Shaw, a spokeswoman for the scientists’ group, said the statement attracted 3,000 supporters in the first three days after its release and temporarily clogged traffic on the organization’s Web site. It was not clear last week, though, how many of the new signatures also belonged to scientists.

Ms. Shaw said the organization began its investigation last summer in response to calls from members and other scientists to take a stand against a pattern of federal intervention they saw as unprecedented.

“In previous administrations, the policymakers asked scientists to provide the best scientific evidence, and then it was up to the policymakers to make their own decisions,” said David M. Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington. He was one of the original signers.

“What’s going on now,” Mr. Michaels continued, “is that the science is being misrepresented and repressed so that it is made to look like it supports the policymakers’ decisions, and that’s a big difference.”

During President Clinton’s administration, Mr. Michaels was an assistant secretary for environment, safety, and health in the U.S. Department of Energy. But he noted that five of his co-signors held similarly high-ranking federal positions during Republican administrations. The list also includes 20 Nobel laureates, 19 National Medal of Science winners, and three researchers presented with the Crawford Prize, an award the Swedish Royal Academy gives in subject areas not covered by the Nobel Prize.

In the area of childhood lead poisoning, for example, Mr. Michaels maintained that federal officials had distorted the scientific decisionmaking process by manipulating the makeup of an advisory panel. The changes to the panel came, he said, just as the group was about to lower the federal threshold for determining acceptable lead levels in children’s blood.

Testing Abstinence

The report also contends that the Bush administration interfered in research designed to test the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs of sex education by mandating the kinds of measures researchers could use. Rather than using conventional techniques to gauge program effectiveness, it says, such as tracking the birthrates among girls who participated, federal researchers now must restrict themselves to documenting participants’ attendance and attitudes.

Both as president and as governor of Texas, Mr. Bush expressed his support for abstinence education.

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