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Suppressing and Distorting Information
at the Expense of Public Health
Ranking Scientists Warn Bush Science Policy Lacks Integrity
ENS Correspondents
Environment News Service (ENS)
20 February 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 19, 2004 (ENS) - More than 60 of the nation's top scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, leading medical experts, and former federal agency directors, as well as university chairs and presidents, issued a statement Wednesday calling for regulatory and legislative action to "restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking."

They say President George W. Bush has suppressed and distorted scientific analysis from federal agencies, subjected government scientists to "censorship and political oversight," and taken actions that have undermined the quality of scientific advisory panels.

"Across a broad range of issues, the administration has undermined the quality of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government's outstanding scientific personnel," said Dr. Kurt Gottfried, emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and Chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Whether the issue is lead paint, clean air or climate change, this behavior has serious consequences for all Americans."

The statement notes that while scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective. But these critics say the administration of President George W. Bush has disregarded this principle.

"We are not simply raising warning flags about an academic subject of interest only to scientists and doctors," said Dr. Neal Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation and a Presidential Science Advisor in the Clinton administration. "In case after case, scientific input to policymaking is being censored and distorted. This will have serious consequences for public health."

Comparing President Bush with his father, George H.W. Bush and former President Richard Nixon, the statement warned that had these former Presidents, both Republicans, similarly dismissed science in favor of political ends, more than 200,000 deaths and millions of respiratory and cardiovascular disease cases would not have been prevented with the signing of the original Clean Air Act and the 1990 amendments to that Act.

"Science, to quote President Bush's father, the former president, relies on freedom of inquiry and objectivity," said Russell Train, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

"But this administration has obstructed that freedom and distorted that objectivity in ways that were unheard of in any previous administration," Train said.

For example, the scientists state, "in support of the President's decision to avoid regulating emissions that cause climate change, the administration has consistently misrepresented the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, government scientists, and the expert community at large. Thus in June 2003, the White House demanded extensive changes in the treatment of climate change in a major report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To avoid issuing a scientifically indefensible report, EPA officials eviscerated the discussion of climate change and its consequences." 

In conjunction with the statement, the Union of Concerned Scientists today released a report, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking," that investigates numerous allegations in the scientists' statement involving censorship and political interference with independent scientific inquiry at the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Interior and Defense.

One example cited in the statement and report involves the suppression of a study by the EPA that found the bipartisan Senate Clear Air bill would do more to reduce mercury contamination in fish and prevent more deaths than the Bush administration's proposed air pollution plan, known as "Clear Skies."

On February 14, 2002, President Bush announced his Clean Skies Initiative, a plan to cut power plant emissions by establishing a cap and trade program that the President said was "based on sound science." It was modeled after his father's successful emissions trading market for sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain.

Cap and trade systems set a national limit on emissions and allow companies to choose whether to cut their own emissions or buy credits from plants that do. Firms that innovate first are rewarded and companies that do not pay greater costs.

If approved by Congress, Clear Skies would establish new emissions trading markets for nitrogen oxides and mercury, while reducing the allowable sulfur dioxide emissions level. President Bush has said the initiative mandates a 70 percent cut in air pollution from power plants over the next 15 years, including the first ever national cap on mercury emissions.

But in December 2002 the EPA rewrote a Clean Air Act regulation known as the New Source Review (NSR) to make it easier for coal fired electric utilities to generate more power without having to install additional emissions controls. In addition, the Bush administration has halted prosecution of some 50 power plants that are alleged to be in violation of the old NSR rule.

In October 2003 the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, reported that the revised NSR rule could "limit assurance of the public's access to data about and input on decisions to modify facilities in ways that affect emissions." This would make it more difficult for the public to monitor local emissions, health risks, and NSR compliance.

Under the Bush NSR revision, the companies themselves can determine whether there is a "reasonable possibility" a facility change will increase emissions enough to trigger a review of their controls. But, the General Accounting Office wrote, the EPA has not defined "reasonable possibility," or required that companies keep data on all of their reasonable possibility determinations, or specified how the public can access the data companies do keep on site - in effect limiting public access to factual information.

At the same time, the Rockefeller Family Fund and Council of State Governments released a joint study that said changes in the way industrial plants are allowed to count emissions under the Clear Skies policy would increase outputs of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and soot.

In view of such Bush administration policies, the scientists are demanding that the Bush administration's "distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease." They are calling for Congressional oversight hearings, guaranteed public access to government scientific studies and other measures to prevent such abuses in the future.

How has the Bush administration breached the principles of scientific integrity? In their statement, the scientists count the ways.

Highly qualified scientists have been dropped from advisory committees dealing with childhood lead poisoning, environmental and reproductive health, and drug abuse, while individuals associated with or working for industries subject to regulation have been appointed to these bodies.

Censorship and political oversight of government scientists is not restricted to the EPA, but has also occurred at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Interior, when scientific findings are in conflict with the administration's policies or with the views of its political supporters.

Existing scientific advisory committees to the Department of Energy on nuclear weapons, and to the State Department on arms control, have been disbanded.

The list of signers includes 19 recipients of the National Medal of Science, an award given by the President of the United States to individuals "deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences."

In their statement, the scientists call upon their peers in the scientific, engineering and medical communities to work together "to reestablish scientific integrity" in the policymaking process.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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