Whether it’s panthers or pollution, faith-based science isn’t enough
Current federal science policy suggests that not all data are created equal
| 20 October 2004
Michael Pollan got his first inkling that “something was afoot” several years ago when, in the course of reporting on the food industry, USDA staff scientists began telling him they could no longer talk to reporters without permission, returning his calls from pay phones or from home, and asking to go off the record to discuss such seemingly uncontroversial topics as bovine nutrition.
But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when 62 leading scientists publicly assailed what they called the Bush administration’s “distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends,” that Pollan sensed “the larger pattern that might be at work here.” The list of signatories to the scientists’ statement, first released in February, has since swelled to more than 5,000, including 48 Nobel laureates.
On Tuesday, Oct. 12, Pollan — now a Berkeley journalism professor and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism — gathered a panel of scientists on the stage of Wheeler Auditorium to, as he put it, “document from firsthand experience the suppression or distortion of science by the administration.”
The evening was titled “Bush Science.” But the weight of scientific opinion — from a pair of longtime government scientists with direct knowledge of the vagaries of federal science policy, and two others appearing as expert witnesses — strongly suggested that while the phrase may be amusing, it’s definitely no joke.
Several panelists used the word “unprecedented” to describe what they called this administration’s excessive politicization of science.
Bruce Buckheit, former head of the air enforcement division of the Environmental Protection Agency, accused the Bush White House of applying a double standard to science-related decisions. The administration, he said, “ignores science until it needs science. It sets a low level of proof for any action that it wants to take to help industry, and sets a very high level” for actions meant to protect the public interest.
Buckheit quit his job in December 2003, in response to the president’s efforts to “reform” the New Source Review provisions of the Clean Air Act. The provisions required older coal-fired plants and refineries to install modern pollution controls if they expanded or modified their operations in ways that would significantly increase harmful emissions.
Tougher enforcement, he said, could have saved billions of dollars in health-care costs and thousands of lives. Yet based on “a collection of anecdotes” from affected companies, Buckheit charged, the Bush administration decided to radically roll back enforcement under the guise of reform, with “no science involved.”
“At EPA we described this as a faith-based initiative” because, he said, each paragraph of the agency’s technical explanation for the change in policy began, “We believe...”.
Andrew Eller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked on Florida panther recovery for the past decade. A highly endangered subspecies of mountain lion, the Florida panther’s population in the wild — fewer than 35 animals in 1995 — is currently estimated at between 50 and 100. Yet in December 2001, Eller said, he was told “under threat of insubordination” to modify a formal opinion to state that “there was a surplus of panthers, and that the cumulative effects of habitat loss were of no consequence” — despite a vast body of evidence to the contrary.
In May 2004, Eller filed a complaint charging the agency with using faulty scientific data to set policy. Two months later, the agency announced its intention to fire him. Although a judge has since backed up the substance of Eller’s complaint, his future with the government remains unclear.
‘...still a complete disconnect...’
David Baltimore, a 1975 Nobel Prize winner in medicine (for his work in furthering understanding of retroviruses like HIV) — and one of the original 62 signatories to the February statement — said that while that document’s release has had a “salutary” impact, there is “still a complete disconnect between the science and the policy” under the Bush administration.
Baltimore, now president of the California Institute of Technology, criticized the White House for impeding embryonic-stem-cell research “on religious grounds,” and for its steadfast refusal to support the use of condoms as protection against AIDS due to objections from opponents of birth control.
The latter, he said, “is a clear case to my mind of religious beliefs driving public policy in the face of both dire need and established fact.”
Similarly, Kurt Gottfried, an emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists — a co-sponsor of the evening’s discussion — said the Bush White House “often constructs policy to please constituents who believe that the Old Testament provides a valid description of evolution.” He pointed to “a great deal of demoralization” among government scientists and warned that continued political interference — on issues ranging from nuclear testing to global warming — could cause an exodus of good scientists.
Gottfried advised those in the scientific community to “prepare ourselves for a long campaign to convince our fellow citizens that while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, people are not entitled to their own facts, and the laws of nature cannot be repealed by Congress or the White House.”
Invitations to participate in the discussion were extended to two administration representatives, noted Pollan, including John H. Marburger, the president’s science adviser, and several authors of a Hoover Institution report that concluded both major parties, and previous administrations, stand guilty of politicizing science. All declined to appear. So it fell to David Guston, an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University who has written about the nexus between politics and science, to question the premise put forth by the rest of the panel.
“There’s a certain lack of recognition that the politicization has been happening all along,” he said, calling such interference a “normal state of affairs.”
Rather than defend that assertion, however, Guston said he preferred to “question the framing” of the issue, and to explore how to make science “popular, relevant, and participatory” through what he called increased democratization of science policy.
For the most part, that idea was treated as a subject for another evening. Cornell’s Gottfried objected that Guston was “just glossing over differences that I insist are significant.”
On several occasions, Gottfried suggested that the threat of politicization transcends the boundaries of science alone. “If a policy is guided by ideology, that requires a rejection of reality,” he warned. “And a government that is not in touch with reality can, in the long run, only be maintained by adopting an ever more authoritarian form of government.”
To view a webcast of the discussion, visit webcast.berkeley.edu and select “Events.”