The Scientific Activist

When the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) last week released a report detailing widespread political interference in science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I almost didn’t blog about it, since the fact that political interference runs rampant in the Bush Administration shouldn’t be news to anyone. And, since this interference is occasionally motivated by political or religious ideology but much more often driven by the disproportionate protection of the business interests of the Administration’s industry supporters, one would expect political interference at the EPA to be particularly severe.

And, in its much-anticipated report on the EPA, that’s exactly what the UCS found. In fact, the offenses were so egregious that I would be remiss if I didn’t put up something on my blog about it. The report is based primarily on a survey that was answered by 1,586 EPA scientists. You can find the full report and more information about the report at this link, but here are the key findings (from the press release):

  • 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years.
  • 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional “statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.”
  • 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.”
  • 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.”
  • Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often.
  • Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA’s work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.

In short, many EPA scientists feel that science is inappropriately taking a backseat to industry concerns that are being forced through by various Administration actors. The report sheds light on the mechanism of this political interference, singling out the Office of Management and Budget as one of the major sources. Respondents indicated that the OMB–which often acts as a more direct link between the president and various governmental agencies–arbitrarily alters reports and regulations and determines what work is done based on the Administration’s political goals, not on what the science would otherwise dictate.

Through this political interference, the Bush Administration has been able to mold the EPA into an organization that–contrary to its name implying that it exists to protect the environment, and by extension the people of the US–actually does the opposite and is just another tool for the Administration to pursue its single-minded support of big industry over the needs of the country as a whole. This isn’t just a passive process whereby the administration forces the EPA to take the teeth out of its regulations. No, it’s sometimes even an active process of the EPA actually challenging environmental protection by others. The most stunning example of this was when, in 2007, the EPA prevented California from pursuing its own more stringent emission standards–which was in itself a response to the EPA’s own inaction.

The effect of all of this (beyond the slow degradation of our environment and the risks to our health and wellbeing that this entails) has been a major hit to morale within the EPA. (Chris Mooney covers this and other aspects of this story in an article at Science Progress.) And, who can blame those at the EPA for feeling upset? Few things are worse for a scientist than having to follow arbitrary directions that are not scientifically based or having your hard work covered up because the results aren’t politically expedient.

At a time when the controlling of carbon dioxide emissions to counter global warming is emerging as possibly the globe’s number one concern, we need a strong, credible, and independent EPA–one that bases its actions on science and not ideology or profit. The good news is that Congress is already on this one, as Henry Waxman (D-CA)–chairman of the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform–last week informed EPA administrator Stephen Johnson that he needed to begin preparing testimony for the Oversight committee.

At the end of the day, though, just reacting to this political interference isn’t enough. We need a new administration that will create a culture that’s not conducive to such interference. This would mean being much more open, not giving undue weight to the concerns of big industry, accepting scientific findings and recommendations at face value, and letting government scientists pursue their work independently. Let’s hope that we see some major shifts in these directions come January 2009. Otherwise, we’re in big trouble.

Comments

  1. #1 bwv
    May 1, 2008

    What?!? politics in the government?

    Environmental regulation has a long history of being a mechanism for rent-seeking by special interests. The EPA served this function long before the Bush Administration and will continue to do so after it is gone.

    Why would any politician listen to concerned Scientists over monied interests?

  2. #2 chezjake
    May 1, 2008

    Here’s the latest: The Bush administration has forced out EPA’s regional administrator for the Midwest over her persistent pursuit of Dow Chemical for dioxin pollution in Michigan.
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/green/chi-epa-official-resigns_webmay02,0,4655733.story

  3. #3 yogi-one
    May 2, 2008

    It’s more than previous administrations. The Bush Administration wants to destroy science, make it seem unattractive to young people to become scientists, and discourage scientists from pursuing their careers. It is exactly because scientistific research ends up pointing out the need for regulation of business, an idea that free-market ideologues vehemently object to.

    It also raises the ire of the Religious Reconstructionists, because science shows the flaw in creationism..Some zealot preachers have declared science as an enemy of religion.

    The third group that attacks science is big business profiteers, who oppose any kind of regulation to control pollution or safety hazards.

    It goes beyond what you have stated here. There is a group of lobbyists and other people who wield considerable clout in the Bush Administration, who openly hate science, want to demoralize and destroy scientists, and want to break the back of the scientific community in the USA. Some of them are free-market idealists, some are religious zealots, and some are just plain greedy people for whom science is nothing more than interference in their profiteering.

    Scientists have to band together, defend science and aggressively promote it to our youth. It is essential for the nation’s future, as I see it. There is an awful price scientists (and society) will pay for doing nothing on this issue.

    More links:

    The War on Science – the book:
    http://www.waronscience.com

    an article in 2004 about this:
    http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0705-04.htm

    an article from Feb 2008:
    http://www.alternet.org/environment/78056/