12 July 2010

Remember the "War on Science"?

During the Bush Administration, a lot was made about how Republicans were waging a "war on science." The Bush Administration was particularly ham-handed and certainly tried to use (and abuse) science in support of its political agenda. There is no dispute about this. For many years I have disputed the notion that such actions were simply characteristic of Republican leadership which might be addressed at the ballot box, returning science to its proper place, rather than via more systemic policy reform. With the election of Barack Obama and a significant Democratic majority in Congress we can test this hypothesis.

Today's Los Angeles Times provides some evidence that the Obama Administration is itself ham-handed and trying to use (and abuse) science in support of its political agenda:
When he ran for president, Barack Obama attacked the George W. Bush administration for putting political concerns ahead of science on such issues as climate change and public health. And during his first weeks in the White House, President Obama ordered his advisors to develop rules to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch."

Many government scientists hailed the president's pronouncement. But a year and a half later, no such rules have been issued. Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out.

"We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.
What are some of the complaints being levied against the Administration?
[I]nterviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.

"Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently," said Francesca Grifo, the organization's director of scientific integrity.

For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency.

Most of the examples provided by Ruch, Grifo and others come from scientists who insist on anonymity, making it difficult for agencies to respond specifically to the complaints. Officials at those agencies maintain that scientists are allowed and encouraged to speak out if they believe a policy is at odds with their findings.
Of course, during the previous presidency if you supported the policies of the Bush Administration, you might have found it easy to look away from issues of scientific integrity. Similarly, if you support the policies of the Obama Administration you might choose to remain silent about the continuing issues of scientific integrity. This sort of selective concern exacerbates the pathological politicization of science. Distinguishing partisan politics from issues of scientific integrity is important, but unfortunately, difficult to do.