13 October 2010

The Bush-Obama War on Science Continues

There is no war on science.  The title of this post is mean to be ironic and it reflects a longstanding position that I've taken on this blog that rather than presidents and parties, issues of scientific integrity in government have much more to do with rather mundane things such as efforts to manage the politics-of-the-day and appointed-versus-career officials.  Political partisans like to use the issue of scientific integrity to score -- what else? -- partisan points.   But the issue is one that spans parties and presidencies, and deserves a bipartisan response, rather than being politicized.

The latest evidence that scientific integrity is a bipartisan policy issue comes from Nature in a story just out.  It details a number of remarkably familiar and troubling instances of the suppression of scientists in the federal agencies under the Obama Administration.

Here is an excerpt that details several instances in USDA and NOAA:
In May this year, Steven Naranjo, a research leader at the ARS office in Maricopa, Arizona, ran up against a wall when he received an interview request from National Public Radio to comment on a paper published in Science. The paper discussed the emergence of 'non-target' pests in areas where genetically engineered insect-resistant crops are grown. Naranjo had reviewed the paper for Science and wanted to do the interview. But when he asked for permission from the ARS information staff, the request was passed up to the communications office of the USDA, and ultimately denied, he says. "They decided it was too controversial," says Naranjo. "It was a little frustrating, but not a big deal."

The process is more than a little frustrating for one ARS researcher, who says he is so fed up with the system that he has simply stopped asking for permission. For years, this scientist has been writing columns for regional newspapers and speaking to journalists without reporting it to the information staff. "I don't want them changing my words," this scientist said, under the condition of anonymity. "Getting permission is one more hoop and it's a pain in the neck."

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) encountered problems when they started talking about the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA employees are allowed to speak to the press without getting permission from the press office as long as they are talking about science, according to policies set in 2007. But Mark Powell, a hurricane expert at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida, says that after the oil spill, a team of NOAA experts was assembled and 'cleared' to talk to the media. As Powell understood it, no one else was allowed to speak publicly. "I decided to turn down a local TV interview because I had not yet been cleared," he says.

Communication staff at NOAA say that they used the term cleared to identify subject experts who had been put through some quick media training after the explosion. "This effort did not preclude anyone from speaking to the media or public, as per the NOAA policy," says Justin Kenney, director of communications for NOAA. But Powell wasn't the only one with the impression that communications rules had been tightened. "I did feel early on that I would make people a lot happier if I worked with media relations," says Michelle Wood, director of the ocean chemistry division in the same lab as Powell, a process that she says was "maddeningly slow" and often sent journalists to experts outside of NOAA. Wood says it was a great relief to later learn that it was coordination with external groups working on the spill that was delaying NOAA's responses to the media, rather than NOAA itself, and that communication lines eventually opened up.
Nature explains that the Obama Administration promised guidelines on communication for science agencies that were due more than a year ago and have yet to be delivered.

Neal Lane, science advisor to Bill Clinton, sums up the situation quite well:
"If this is a priority of our president's, the [cabinet members] are going to go back to their agencies and ask that the message be sent all the way down through the organization. They don't want to read in Nature that one of their scientists was prevented from talking after the president has just told them that he's serious about this."
 Too late for that.