Science Wars II

Chris Mooney

For policy wonks and issue advocates, a new area of specialization has recently arrived on the scene: “Scientific integrity.” Bills on the subject have been introduced in Congress. Interest groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), now specialize in tracking political interference with science. Foundations are dedicating energy and funding to the area; journalists, commentators, pundits and bloggers have also climbed on board. One (yours truly) even has a book coming out on the subject. There’s room, it almost seems, for a career here.

All of this activity has been triggered by repeated charges that the Bush administration has reached a new low in its willingness to twist and undermine scientific information to suit desired policy objectives. Such accusations have a four year history, stretching from early concerns over whether the administration would even name a science adviser, through 2001 debates over stem cells and global warming, past reports complied by members of Congress denouncing the administration’s meddling with science going on at federal agencies and the composition of scientific advisory committees, and up to a landmark moment—a February 2004 statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists (and assorted scientific community superstars) that denounced the Bush administration for unprecedented and systematic abuses and misuses of science.

However, the story doesn’t end there. If anything, it has gathered momentum since the pivotal UCS statement, as new anecdotes and examples have repeatedly popped up suggesting that the Bush administration hasn’t learned the error of its ways. Whistleblowers from branches of government ranging from the Climate Change Science Program to the Bureau of Land Management have come forward with stories of cynical informational meddling that have made the front pages of papers ranging from The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, the UCS and PEER have begun to survey scientists within federal agencies — so far they’ve tackled the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service —to determine whether they think political players are meddling with scientific information. Scores of surveys have now come back with answers in the affirmative.

Perhaps most important of all in focusing attention on the issue of “scientific integrity” have been the climate change fiascos in the run up to the G8 summit. Shortly before President Bush departed for Gleneagles, Scotland, whistleblower Rick Piltz dropped a bomb with his revelations, reported on in The New York Times, that a political appointee at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (who had formerly worked at the American Petroleum Institute) had taken a metaphorical red pen to government climate science reports and inserted language that had the effect of magnifying uncertainty about various conclusions. A media frenzy began as this same individual—Philip Cooney—then resigned and promptly went to work at ExxonMobil, now perhaps the leading corporation encouraging skepticism about the ongoing climate crisis.

All of these events have had a cumulative effect, making it virtually impossible to take seriously the ongoing denials from the White House that anything unusual is going on. Those denials do, of course, persist; with each new revelation comes a dutiful response: “there’s nothing out of the ordinary here”; “this is a typical interagency review process”; “the debate here is really over policy, not science”; and so forth. But such replies don’t hold up very well when you consider that the critics of the administration are themselves current or former government agency scientists who know very well what an “interagency review process” is and nevertheless insist that such processes have been corrupted in this administration. Even if we concede that some of these whistleblowers may have an ax to grind, we’re nevertheless left with a huge horde of disgruntled government scientists who can’t possibly all be wrong.

Where does that leave us? Assuming—as I think we must given all of the evidence—that something alarming is happening here at the interface between science and politics, it’s worth asking why exactly that might be so. My conclusion is that what we’re seeing is the result of a certain type of constituency-driven politics, in which federal agencies get staffed with Republican political appointees who know very well who their friends are and are willing to listen to them on matters of science. So business interests get their “scientific” arguments privileged at agencies that are supposed to be protecting endangered species and the environment, even as religious conservative interests get their “science” humored at agencies dedicated to public health and even, to some extent, medical research.

We don’t have to postulate a nefarious conspiracy, then, to explain the war on science that has manifested itself during the Bush administration. We need only point to an army of political appointees in government agencies who are going about their jobs the only way they know how—i.e., talking a lot to their industry or religious right allies and frequently rewarding their lobbying attempts in scientific areas. In short, it’s a politico-scientific spoils system. And as this particular spoils system proceeds to allocate rewards, it simultaneously undermines, cheapens, and compromises federal agencies as reliable, public-oriented sources of scientific analysis and information.

But if we’re looking at a government-wide problem based on staffing and a culture that has developed within federal agencies, that suggests it won’t be easily solved. In fact, the damage done could long outlast the Bush administration, because the integrity of the federal government will have been compromised and because taxpayer-funded agencies may not recover quickly (or at all) from the traumas they’ve been put through. Here’s where the political abuse of science becomes a core issue for the nation’s future: The crisis promises to leave Americans with a less reliable, less effective, less professional, and ultimately less respectable government. The consequences will be felt in a wide range of areas, ranging from public health to the environment.

In conclusion, then, “scientific integrity” emerged virtually out of nowhere as a central issue under the Bush administration, and has since transmogrified into a broad-scale concern about good governance and the effectiveness and integrity of agencies funded by the public purse. The standard way to address concerns about good government is to initiate reform, and momentum has now begun to build in support of precisely that outcome, at least among Democrats in Congress. (Though there are prominent exceptions, most GOP representatives remain unwilling to seriously investigate or criticize the Bush administration.) In the meantime, however, political science abuse shows no sign of going away. And already, the wounds it has inflicted will take a very, very long time to heal.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.