Science and scientific knowledge have played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world’s most powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy. For science to play this positive and rational role in governance, the processes through which science influences government must be free of distortion and misrepresentation.
This report has, however, provided substantial evidence that objective scientific knowledge is being distorted for political ends by the Bush administration, and misrepresented or even withheld from Congress and the public at large. At high levels of government, the administration’s political agenda has permeated the traditionally objective, nonpartisan mechanisms through which the government uses scientific knowledge in forming and implementing public policy.
This behavior by the administration violates the central premise of the scientific method, and is therefore of particularly grave concern to the scientific community. But it should also concern the American public, which has every right to expect its government to formulate policy on the basis of objective scientific knowledge in policies that affect the health, well-being and safety of its citizens.
The administration’s actions have a harmful effect on policies related to public health, the environment, and national security. Consider just a few of the examples mentioned in this report:
- In 2002, just as an expert advisory committee to the CDC appeared ready to consider a more stringent federal lead standard, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson rejected highly qualified experts nominated by CDC staff scientists to serve on the committee, instead appointing two with financial ties to the lead industry effectively blocking debate on the more stringent standard.
- In an apparent attempt to block a pending report that would recommend changes in the flow of the Missouri River to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the administration removed scientists from a study years in the making.
- A microbiologist recently left the USDA claiming he had been prohibited from publishing his research on potential human health hazards posed by airborne bacteria emanating from farm wastes.
- In a clear effort to forestall mandatory limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other heattrapping gases, the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus that consumption of fossil fuels and other human activities are contributing to global warming.
This pattern of behavior, if unchallenged, will amplify the cynicism about government that undermines democracy.
In the long term, one of the most profound effects of the administration’s injection of politics into the government’s handling of scientific knowledge may well be the demoralization of researchers at federal agencies, many of whom feel that their integrity as scientists has been compromised. Worldrenowned scientific institutions such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health take decades to build a team of world-class scientific expertise and talent. But they can be severely damaged in short order by scientifically unethical behavior such as that displayed by the current administration. Topflight scientists can readily find posts elsewhere, and once an exodus of scientific expertise starts, it becomes much harder for an agency to retain its remaining staff and attract outstanding talent to replace those who have departed. That such demoralization is already setting in is immediately discernible on an anecdotal basis in interviews with disaffected and departed staff. These individuals express a deep concern about the many actions by the Bush administration that have distorted or undermined the analysis and reporting of scientific information; they also state that many of their colleagues share their views. This is confirmed by reports from scientific staff at federal agencies who are distressed that their nominees for advisory posts have been subjected to political litmus tests, and by reports of such tests from nominees themselves.
Ensuring that the government’s leading scientific institutions are of the highest quality, effectiveness, and credibility will lead to better breakthrough research and more effective public policies to protect the health and safety of the American public and our communities. Actions that undercut the effectiveness of these institutions are a grave disservice to all Americans.
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