A business-backed lobbying organisation has used a little-known law intended to stop the use of government money for "junk science" to cast doubt on a study on climate change.
The government has been forced to question the credibility of the report National Assessment on Climate Change by adding a disclaimer because the study was not subject to the Federal Data Quality Act. But attempts to have the report withdrawn altogether have been unsuccessful.
Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government, said: "We are pleased to see that the federal government has now put the public on notice that the National Assessment is propaganda, not science."
But according to the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the federal government, the report is good science. It says the research, which was peer-reviewed by 300 scientific and technical experts, is "well regarded".
According to the Center for Progressive Regulation, an association of high-placed academics, the controversy is one of more than 100 instances of how the act has been misused to challenge research that could affect business and industry at a time when a business-friendly federal administration is already running roughshod over health and environmental laws.
"It's a whole new way of politics presiding over science that's kind of frightening," said Wendy Wagner, a professor of environmental law at the University of Texas and a CPR member.
The act was conceived by industry lobbyists in 2001. There were no hearings, committee reviews or debates. It requires that research conducted using government money be accurate, reliable and unbiased.
Business interests have invoked the act to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from distributing booklets and videotapes warning mechanics of the dangers of cancer-causing asbestos in automobile brakes.
The warnings have been used as evidence in thousands of personal-injury lawsuits brought by mechanics against hundreds of American companies. The salt industry has used the act to challenge government-funded studies linking salt intake to hypertension.
Examples of the uses of the act are being tracked by an organisation called OMB Watch (www. ombwatch.org).
Industry lobbyists are threatening researchers and their universities with challenges to their government funding unless they comply.
Last year, the business-backed Center for Regulatory Effectiveness sent letters to several universities saying their faculties were producing research with "significant omissions, inaccuracies and manifest biases" and warning the universities to police them to comply with the act. The letter was also sent to the American Association of University Professors.
"It could have somewhat of a chilling effect on scientists doing research on policy-relevant issues," Ms Wagner said. "You're just going to get your head lopped off."
Critics say the act could be used endlessly to delay the release of important research.
"Science is playing a larger role in a lot of our social decisions, so it's going to be much more hotly contested," Ms Wagner said. "Whenever you have a big issue such as climate change, you're going to see hotly contested science. And this provides a new launching point for attacks on that science."