The Scientific Activist

I bring of the subject of political interference in science so much that I’m starting to sound like a broken record. By this point, it’s pretty much a topic that needs no introduction around here, so we’ll just dive right in.

In the ongoing struggle against political interference Michael Stebbins of Sex Drugs & DNA reports that Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) has introduced a scientific integrity amendment to HR 5450, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Act, which is currently under consideration in the house. HR 5450 was introduced on May 22nd by Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), but, according to Sex Drugs & DNA (which has been a great source of Washington insider info on science policy lately), was pulled from consideration after Miller introduced his amendment. The bill may be considered again on June 14th, and its future will apparently depend on what kind of compromise Miller is able to reach with House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).

As Stebbins points out, this amendment goes leaps and bounds beyond the McCain amendment to the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S 2820), which was approved by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on May 18th. The McCain amendment calls on the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (currently John Marburger) to “encourage the open exchange of data and results of research by Federal agency scientists” by creating a “set of principles for the communication of scientific information by government scientists, policy makers, and managers to the public.”

The Miller amendment, although only applicable to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is much more specific and comprehensive. It prohibits NOAA employees from tampering with or censoring the results of scientific research or disseminating false or misleading scientific information. It also prohibits political affiliation from being considered in appointing members to advisory committees “unless required by Federal statute,” and sets further requirements to ensure objective and accurate advice not hampered by conflicts of interest.

In light of this, Stebbins describes this as “the most comprehensive attempt to ensure that accurate scientific information and advice comes out of the administration and would be a tremendous step forward for the scientific community and the public.”

How can anyone argue with that? If the Republican leadership continues to prevent this amendment from going forward, it will just go to show that any talk coming out of the Republican leadership about supporting science is purely lip service.

Update 14 June 2006: The amendment has been voted down. See this post.


  1. #1 Jake Young
    June 14, 2006

    We seem destined to polite disagreement though in light of the above comments I definitely prefer that to acrimonious disagreement.

    Anyway, I have some concerns about this amendment that I put here:

    Since you are a lot more on top of this than I am, I am curious whether you think the scenario I list is reasonable.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 15, 2006

    I think anytime you mix science and politics you’re probably asking for trouble, but I’m not sure if I really see a scenario playing out that way. As it stands right now, there is quite a bit of political interference in science and no legal avenues to address it. For example, NASA wasn’t able to do anything about the person at the heart of the NASA censorship scandal, because he was an administration appointee. It was only because of the unrelated fact that he lied on his resume that he had to resign. Regulations such as the ones in this amendment would have hopefully gotten rid of him when it first became apparent that he was blatantly censoring the science.

  3. #3 kevin v
    June 15, 2006

    boyz – I haven’t had a chance to write on this yet, but in brief, my (former) insider take is that the Miller amdt is a good start and doesn’t carry ominous potential. This is actually not an off-shoot of the Hansen/Deutch stuff but part of a long-running fight to alter the agency peer review and advisory committee rules to discount academic scientists and promote industry voices. In 2003, I and some fellow staffers worked (as well as AAAS and other organizations) to get a proposed change by OMB/OIRA on peer review for regulatory agencies altered. We did get them to alter their original proposal, but there is still quibbling going on about the issue in general. Anyway, I’ll try to write up something on it soon.

  4. #4 kevin v
    June 15, 2006

    Sorry – I shouldn’t have said it’s not about Hansen/Deutch because that issue is a part of it, but the issue runs deeper and has much more history than that.

  5. #5 Nick Anthis
    June 15, 2006

    Thanks for your input, Kevin. I think as well that it’s very important to stress that this problem of political interference goes far beyond Deutschgate, and I look forward to reading your take on things.

  6. #6 bobbie
    July 5, 2006

    This is very interesting site

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