February 27, 2004

Bush May Distort Facts To Serve Political Goals

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Several Cornell professors joined a group of prominent scientists last week in signing a statement critical of the Bush administration’s use of scientific research. The statement, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, alleges that the administration has systematically distorted the findings of scientific advisors when they conflicted with political goals.

According to the statement, the administration has appointed industry insiders to advisory panels, censored information in reports provided by government scientists, and disbanded committees whose advice is at odds with policy. Roughly 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, initially signed the statement. A report released by UCS at the same time details accusations of interference at the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Agriculture and other government agencies.

“This is not the way to run a government so we have rational decision making,” said Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics, chair of the board of UCS. “There was knowledge, and growing alarm [among scientists] about what was going on.”

Gottfried was quick to point out that the government is free to disregard the advice of scientists when other factors outweigh it. The statement’s concern, he said, is that the Bush administration has presented distorted scientific information as fact to lend more credibility to its policies.

“There’s no legal requirement to have scientific advice, but the government has an obligation to see to it that the scientific advice that it does get is accurate,” he said. “On both those scores this administration has acted badly and it has done so to a degree and to an extent that is unprecedented.”

The report has been criticized by some Republicans as politically motivated, coming at a high point in the Democratic primaries. Gottfried said the timing of the report was not calculated, and emphasized that he sees its subject matter as apolitical. Past Republican presidents, such as Nixon and George H.W. Bush, have used scientific data to back stronger environmental regulations, he said.

“We’ve gone to great pains to point out that among the signers are people who’ve worked in Republican administrations,” he said. “Certainly if we talk about the first Bush administration I don’t remember anything like this going on.” Pointing to limited reaction from the White House, he added, “nobody has yet said that any particular case that we detailed in the report is wrong.”

Prof. Thomas Eisner, neurobiology and behavior, another UCS board member, voiced agreement. “If a politician is misrepresenting science then we have to be political to the extent we need to criticize it,” he said. “But if you look at the names you’ll see that it’s clearly not one-sidedly political.”

Local Republican figures disagree, however. According to Cornell College Republicans speaker Elliott Reed ’05, the timing of the report is suspicious. “The whole National Guard thing didn’t really pan out so now they’re going to the environment,” he said. According to Reed, the scientists’ anger may arise from ideological differences with the White House that have “clouded their judgment.”

The signed statement highlights allegations that the White House heavily modified sections of an EPA report, exaggerating scientific uncertainty about climate change. UCS also published an internal EPA memo discussing staff concerns that the report had become misleading.

Prof. Kerry Cook, earth and atmospheric sciences, said she signed the statement and agrees with its concerns. Cook specializes in climate dynamics, or “how and why climate changes.”

“I fully believe the Bush administration is being irresponsible,” she said. “There’s no uncertainty that the chemical composition of the atmosphere has changed. Within the last five years, the scientific uncertainty [about climate change] has really gotten very small.”

According to Eisner, censoring such information puts the nation’s reputation in danger. “What’s at stake is the use or misuse of scientific information by a society that invests enormously in discovering things through science,” he said. “We risk being the laughingstock of the scientific world.”

But the actions at the EPA may simply be evidence that Bush is treading more carefully than past presidents, according to Reed. “In the past we’ve done things prematurely, and spent billions of dollars where it wasn’t really necessary,” he said. “I think scientific facts ought to be depoliticized as much as possible. But there’s always a second and third and fourth opinion and you have to acknowledge that.”

In its conclusion, the statement calls for Congress to pass laws that, for example, would forbid censorship or suppression of government scientific reports. Gottfried said a law is ultimately necessary because other presidents have had similar problems, albeit to a lesser degree.

“One should not assume that if the White House changes hands this will just stop,” he said.

Archived article by Peter Flynn