by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Once again, critics of the George W. Bush administration are charging that political appointees are bending science to fit their ideological agendas.
The latest controversy focuses on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), part of the Department of the Interior, where scientists claim they have been forced to alter or withhold findings that would have led to greater protections for endangered species.
According to a survey released by two environmental groups, hundreds of scientists charge that top regional and national officials in the agency suppressed scientific information to avoid confrontations with industry groups or to follow the Bush administration's political policies.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), both non-governmental advocacy groups, conducted a mail-in survey of 1,400 biologists, ecologists, botanists and other scientists, 414 of whom responded.
The groups said the large number of responses reflect concern by many FWS employees that political appointees are inappropriately influencing the science that drives decisions to list species and protect their habitat.
"The Bush administration is obsessed with message control -- that is, ensuring that all information emanating from federal agencies supports the policies set by political leadership," said Rebecca Roose, PEER's program director.
"Science, on the other hand, is not neat and does not always stay within predetermined political lines," she told IPS. "Our survey found that the manner in which the Bush administration enforces message control goes so far as rewriting the underlying scientific findings and analyses."
Roose named several appointees who lack scientific backgrounds, including Paul Hoffman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and FWS assistant secretary Craig Manson, a lawyer, who she said "are directly overruling and rewriting scientific documents."
Nearly half of the survey respondents said they had been asked by their superiors to avoid making findings that would require greater protection of endangered species. One in five agency scientists reported being directed to alter or withhold technical information from scientific documents.
And more than half of the respondents -- 56 percent -- said agency officials have reversed or withdrawn scientific conclusions under pressure from industry groups.
The sponsors of the survey, who often have criticized President Bush's environmental policies, said the results are part of a broader effort by administration officials to mold scientific findings to support their policies.
Republican leaders in Congress, led by House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, want to pass a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, which critics say is failing to save species from extinction.
Two senior House Democrats who oppose the proposed changes to the act have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging her to respond to the charges of political interference by agency officials.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's credibility rests on its scientific integrity," wrote two Democratic congressmen, Henry Waxman of California and Nick Rahall of West Virginia. "If political agendas are allowed to overrule science, that credibility will be compromized."
The head of the FWS has directed all staff to participate only in surveys that are officially approved. An official in the Great Lakes regional office asked the staff in a memo not to fill out the survey "in the office or from home."
Bush administration officials have been critical of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, contending that it has resulted in hardships on developers and others while failing to restore healthy populations of wildlife.
Along with Republican leaders in Congress, the administration wants to make changes in the act. The president's new proposed budget calls for a $3-million reduction in funding of Fish and Wildlife's endangered species programs.
The White House's relationship to science policy has been a frequent source of contention. Critics charge that science is being subjugated to politics and ideology. They cite examples including:
Mercury pollution: Last week, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the agency failed to fully assess the health impacts of mercury pollution because political appointees have intervened and compromised scientific practices. EPA officials deny the charge.
Sex education: The president has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach "abstinence only" and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiative called "Programs That Work" identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its website.
All five "Programs That Work" provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were abstinence-only. CDC has now ended this initiative and erased information about these proven sex education programs from its website.
Information about condom use and efficacy was also deleted from the CDC website. The agency replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one emphasising condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.
Stem cell research: In banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, Bush stated that "more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was only about 24 to 25. Still later, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers. Recently, Nancy Reagan, widow of the late President Ronald Reagan, urged Bush to rethink his stem cell policy.
Global warming: Reports by the EPA on the risks of climate change were suppressed, and the White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment that former administrator Christie Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one that was scientifically inaccurate. She resigned last year.
Missile defense: A top Defense Department official told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90 percent effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. In April 2003, the General Accounting Office found the president's plan unworkable and even dangerous.
The claim of 90 percent effectiveness "is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon's own classified estimates," the Congressional watchdog concluded. Last week, for the second time in two months, and the third straight time in two years, a test of the national missile defense system failed.
Wetlands policy: Comments from scientists at the FWS on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes were withheld. Scientists at the agency had prepared an analysis showing that a proposal from the Army's Corps of Engineers (COE) would "encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions."
The interior secretary, however, failed to submit the scientists' comments to the COE, which subsequently issued rules to weaken wetland protections.
Abortion and breast cancer: Social conservatives campaigned to require women to be "counseled" about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions. The National Cancer Institute revized its website to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question. In fact, there is scientific consensus that no such link exists.
"The political manipulation of science is an ongoing problem with this administration," said Lexi Shultz of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Employing scientists only to undermine their findings is at best a mismanagement of public resources and at worst a serious betrayal of the public trust."
FWS has not commented on the survey.
February 18, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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