Don't misinterpret research

February 27, 2004

Scientists are alarmed at how the Bush regime has distorted their findings, writes Kurt Gottfried.

Science has played a seminal role in the birth and development of the US.

The nation's founders recognised that the blossoming of 18th-century science was the result of a mental framework that had lessons for rational governance. Since then, applications of scientific knowledge have played a large part in the policies that have put the US and its citizens in the position they enjoy today.

Science can play this role only if the process through which scientific knowledge is presented to political leaders respects the ethos of science by being free of distortion and misrepresentation.

Many leading US scientists are alarmed that the Bush administration, in contrast to all previous administrations, appears not to accept this principle, and they have brought their concerns to the attention of the American body politic through a statement, released on February 18 under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a supporting document.

There has been wide press coverage of the statement because the 60 signatories included 20 Nobel laureates, deans of leading scientific and medical faculties, the presidents of the California Institute of Technology and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and former officials and advisers of administrations of both parties going back to Dwight Eisenhower.

Two examples will illustrate a pattern that cuts across many federal departments. While running for office, George W. Bush voiced an aversion to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. On being elected, he asked the National Academy of Science to conduct an assessment of climate-change science. It formed an expert panel that in essence confirmed the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human activity was making a discernable contribution to global warming. This did not alter the administration's stance, and to support its view it has often censored references to climate change in statements and information from government-sponsored agencies.

Last spring, the Environmental Protection Agency prepared a major draft report with a chapter on climate change. The White House refused to accept it and demanded that the EPA drop a reference to the academy study, refer instead to a dubious study funded by the petroleum industry, delete a graph showing temperature change over 1,000 years and amend the text so as to give the impression that global cooling is as likely as warming. In the end, the EPA decided to delete the chapter altogether because it did not want to issue a scientifically indefensible report.

In another instance, James Zahn, a microbiologist in the Department of Agriculture, was forbidden to report or publish his finding that hog farms in Iowa and Missouri were emitting significant levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Zahn has since left his post, but released a department memorandum that directs staff not to publish or speak publicly without prior approval from National Program Staff about "sensitive issues" such as "agricultural practices with negative health and environmental consequences... or that impact soil, water or air quality".

The administration has also undermined the independence and quality of its scientific advisory system. It has dropped experts from committees dealing with childhood lead poisoning and reproductive health while appointing people associated with industries subject to related regulations. It has also disbanded committees on nuclear weapons and technical aspects of arms control.

Clearly, politicians must consider more than science in implementing policy. But the signatories insist that rational governance requires scientific input to be free of distortion, and that in advocating its policies a democratic government should not misrepresent such knowledge.

To that end, they call on Congress and the executive to introduce legislative and regulatory reforms that will ensure the acquisition and dissemination by the government of objective scientific analysis and advice.

Kurt Gottfried is professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University and chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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