The Sciences

Obama's "War on Science"?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 14, 2010 12:02 PM

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There was a pretty disturbing story in the Los Angeles Times recently about how much trouble some government scientists are having in the Obama administration--which has not formally issued its promised scientific integrity rules yet. Now, organizations whose work I trust, like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are going on record saying that there are some serious cases of science being suppressed or interfered with in various government agencies. I have not independently investigated any of the cases here, but you have got to take these kinds of charges seriously. Let's go through some claims from the Times article, to list and also to comment:

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.

These sound like very serious charges, and should be officially looked into, if that is not occurring already. Let's continue:

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.

I don't know all the facts, but I can imagine how the decision in this case might not turn solely on science. Still, if you read the Times article, there is more elaboration, and what happened does seem pretty problematic. And again:

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.

Here I'm fairly skeptical. In a crisis, one often makes decisions in the face of huge uncertainty, and trades one danger off against another. I need more evidence that science was actually abused or undermined here, and that this isn't simply a situation where one crappy option was chosen over another crappy option, when a decision had to be made quickly.

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.

With the exception of something like national security, there's no excuse for blocking government scientists' ability to speak with the media. Overall, I hope the Obama White House, and specifically the Office of Science and Technology Policy under John Holdren, is looking into these charges and talking with the groups issuing them. How Holdren responds will be important in determining how this administration's scientific record (which up to now has been very good) will ultimately be weighed. A critical blow against the Bush administration is that, when faced with similar accusations, it simply denied them outright. So far, that looks like a key difference here: I don't see much evidence in this Los Angeles Times story that the White House is denying problems or trying to shoot the (often anonymous) messenger. Another difference with the Bush administration, at least so far, is that I don't see how the alleged cases here (with the exception of the chemical dispersants issue) could be said to be coming out of a desire to protect the president's agenda. With Bush's administration, you could generally trace agency-level abuses of science directly to a desire to defend and promote the president's own goals or policies, or to broader Republican ideological tendencies. Here, I'm not really seeing how that works. But again, this all bears much more looking into.

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