Dr. Francesca Grifo is senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Formed in 1969, UCS is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world.
Federal government science has been distorted, manipulated and suppressed on everything from childhood lead poisoning to toxic mercury emissions, with serious consequences for our health, safety and environment. And through executive order, the Bush administration has attempted to centralize decision-making power in the White House, in the process preventing independent science from informing policy. This cannot be allowed to continue. Congress must act to restore scientific integrity and checks and balances to the federal policy-making process.
If recent activity in the House and Senate is any indication, Congress intends to hold the administration accountable for its abuse of the scientific process. Congress held two hearings in as many weeks—one in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and another in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee—to investigate allegations that federal scientists face political barriers in communicating their work outside their agencies.
The hearings focused on climate change, “Exhibit A” in the administration’s abuse of science. A recent investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) exposed new evidence of widespread political interference across federal science agencies.
The joint investigative report by UCS and GAP, which includes a survey of hundreds of federal scientists at seven federal agencies and dozens of in-depth interviews, documents a high regard for climate change research but broad interference in communicating scientific results. As part of the report, UCS sent a questionnaire to 1,600 federal climate scientists, and 150 scientists reported personally experiencing at least 435 occurrences of political interference in their work over the past five years.
Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words “climate change,” “global warming” or other similar terms from a variety of communications. Forty-three percent of respondents reported they had perceived or personally experienced changes or edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their scientific findings. And nearly half (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work.
The 40 expert interviews included in the report revealed restrictive media policies that impaired timely release of information to help policy makers and the public understand global warming science. Scientists reported unnecessary delays and misrepresentation of press releases on new research, requirements for pre-approval for press interviews and agency public affairs officials listening in on interviews between journalists and scientists.
These political barriers to communicating science are not unique to global warming research. The problem has surfaced in many federal science agencies whose staff work on topics ranging from airborne bacteria to endangered species. Of the more than 1,800 federal scientists across nine agencies who have responded to questionnaires about this issue, 699 scientists (39 percent) report that they fear retaliation for openly expressing concerns about their agency’s mission-driven work. This number should be zero.
UCS has documented scores of specific examples of abuse in its “A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science ." These take many forms—from censorship and suppression of federal science, to dissemination of inaccurate science-based information to the manipulation of scientific advice. More than 11,500 scientists, including 52 Nobel laureates and science advisors to both Republican and Democratic presidents dating back 50 years, have signed a statement condemning this interference and calling for a restoration of scientific integrity to federal policy making.
But while Congress has begun to wake up to this problem, the administration is attempting a power grab of a different sort, pulling the rug out from under federal agencies. In amendments to a new executive order released in January, the Bush administration quietly transferred power from federal agencies to the White House when it comes to new regulations and guidance documents promulgated by federal agencies.
This new rule places political appointees deeper inside federal scientific agencies where they could more easily prevent inconvenient science from ever seeing the light of day. Rather than upholding the work of federal scientists and shielding it from political interference, this rule creates an added layer of political sign-off in agency work.
All branches of government must have access to independent, scientific advice. The thousands of scientists employed by the federal government represent a tremendous resource. Without access to the best available science on climate change and other issues, the public’s understanding will suffer, and our leaders will be unable to make fully informed decisions about our health, safety and environment.
Congress and federal agency leaders should implement reforms that will prevent the continued interference with science for political purposes. Congress must act to protect scientists who speak out when they see interference or suppression of science and all agency policies must affirmatively educate their employees of their rights under these statutes. And federal agencies should immediately enact communications policies that protect the rights of taxpayer-funded scientists to communicate freely about their results with the media and the public without prior approval from the executive branch.