Is Political Interference with Science Continuing under Obama?

July 12, 2010


In so many ways, the Bush years were deplorably unkind to the scientific community.  Remember the political manipulation of studies confirming global warming, the muzzling of climate scientists who refused to back the Bush administration’s official views, the censorship of evidence showing the ineffectiveness of “abstinence only” education, or the NASA official who banned the use of the phrase “Big Bang” unless it was accompanied by the pejorative modifier “theory”?  It was in this politically charged, anti-intellectual climate that my friend Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science , became a runaway bestseller.

All of that seemed to change with the election of President Obama.  In his inaugural address, he spoke about the importance of “restor[ing] science to its rightful place.”  During the first weeks of his new administration, President Obama ordered his advisors to develop rules to “guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.”  Surely things must have improved since January 2009.

Not so, say some scientists.  One and a half years after President Obama’s directive to develop rules to guarantee scientific integrity in the executive branch, no rules have been issued.  And a story in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times reports that complaints from government scientists about censorship and interference with their work have continued at the same rate as under the Bush administration. Scientists told the L.A. Times about a wide range of interference with science:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

White House officials told the L.A. Times that they remain committed to protecting science from interference, and that proposed guidelines would be forwarded to Obama in the near future. Let’s hope the administration will quickly find the courage to reverse a government culture that condoned political interfere with science.  The nation can ill-afford a Bipartisan War on Science.