Restoring Scientific Integrity in Washington 2009

CHW covers the recent Washington conference, Rejuvenating Public Sector Science, where scientists, congress people, commissioners and others convened to address the need for scientific integrity in public policy development. This report covers the conference and takes a look at the presidential candidates’ plans to restore science to the national policy process and re-establish guidelines for ethical science.

Birmingham Steel Plant

One of the most alarming casualties of the last eight years has been the integrity of the science used by the White House and its agencies to guide public policy.  On issues from climate change to reproductive health, energy policy to endangered species, food protection to drug safety, this Administration has manipulated, covered up or censored the work of government scientists and government scientific advisory panels at the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

At a recent Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) conference, Rejuvenating Public Sector Science, Representative Brad Miller, Chairman of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee on the House Science Committee, noted that the Bush Administration “celebrates secrecy as a virtue”; muzzles global warming experts; overruled the FDA on emergency contraception; eliminated a scientific committee at Health and Human Services that did not align with the Administration’s ideology and replaced them with industry insiders; closed part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s library network; and censored the Surgeon General.

Several recent reports document the scope of the problem.  A survey of government scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that of the 900 EPA researchers who responded, 60 percent reported at least one incident of political interference in the last five years and nearly 100 scientists reported direct interference from the White House. In a recent article in Mother Jones, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, described the “pernicious neglect” of government science and the weakening of rules that limited industry influence on government scientists.

William Hubbard, former Senior Associate Commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration and a speaker at the recent CSPI conference, argued that our current system is “out of kilter.” He listed a litany of problems including weak congressional support, demands for an ever higher burden of proof, an increase in de novo decision making, non-scientists making science decisions, diminished credibility of scientists, and reduced morale among those who do want to restore a less politicized form of science.

Clean energy protester

A new Administration in Washington will have the opportunity to restore scientific integrity—and whoever is elected will have some assets to bring to this battle.   Multiple Senators and Congressmen have fought for public interest science—Senator Boxer has helped to create higher EPA standards, Senator Grassley has proposed rules to reduce conflicts of interest, and both Congressmen Dingel and Waxman have sought to document the Administration’s interference with science and the failure of Congress to follow science.

Moreover, Merrill Goozner, Director of CSPI’s Integrity in Science program, has noted how “greater exposure [to scientific manipulation] has led to greater disclosure.”  Oil companies are now advertising what they’re doing about global warming and Exxon recently announced that they are going to stop funding global warming deniers, Goozner stated.  “The tide is turning on scientific integrity”, he said, as “congressional oversight is making itself felt on Capitol Hill.” And it will be up to the next President of the United States to continue this restoration process. A new Administration, Congressmen Miller stated, “will not be the end for a need for vigilant protection of public sector science.”

Hubbard calls for decisions that are driven by science and made by scientists, congressional and public support for scientists, reduced political appointees at the agency level, support for whistleblowers, presidential leadership and a revisiting of rulemaking procedures.

The Candidates

In a recent National Public Radio All Things Considered interview, both presidential candidates said they will “restore integrity to federal science agencies.” Senator Obama’s adviser called the Bush Administration’s years a “war on science” and vowed that his Administration would have increased transparency.  McCain’s adviser stated how, “He [McCain] has always felt that sound science is a foundation of good public policy,” and that “He believes deeply that the science should be the science.”

Their presidential campaign websites reveal some additional general information on government oversight.

Sen. Obama

Senator Obama’s website lists three ethics problems, two of which relate to scientific integrity:

  1. Lobbyists Write National Policies: For example, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force of oil and gas lobbyists met secretly to develop national energy policy.
  2. Secrecy Dominates Government Actions: The Bush administration has ignored public disclosure rules and has invoked a legal tool known as the “state secrets” privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.

His plan to fix these problems includes specific actions to shine the light on Washington lobbying and federal contracts, tax breaks and earmarks, to bring Americans back into their government and to free the Executive branch from special interest influence.

Sen. McCain

Senator McCain’s website has government reform sub-sections entitled:

  1. Seal the Pork Barrel
  2. Stop the revolving door and restore ethics
  3. Democracy is Not for Sale

The website claims that, “As President, John McCain would shine the disinfecting light of public scrutiny on those who abuse the public purse, use the power of the presidency to restore fiscal responsibility, and exercise the veto pen to enforce it.” It also states that, “As President, John McCain will see to it that the institutions of self-government are respected pillars of democracy, not commodities to be bought, bartered, or abused.”

Looking Ahead

As a relatively unchecked issue for the past eight years the bar for scientific integrity is at an all time low.  It will be up to the public and to the government oversight committees to hold the next Administration accountable for their words and actions.   With an unprecedented climate crisis, high childhood obesity rates, many approved drugs found to have unexpected and serious side effects and an increase in health disparities between the better off and the less well off, it is crucial that both the public and policy makers receive accurate science.  Scientific integrity is crucial to a sound policy process.  As Congressmen Miller reinforced at the CSPI conference, the “manipulation of science is fundamentally incompatible with a democratic debate.”


Photo Credits:
1. NARA/EPA via pingnews
2. teamaskins
3. jurvetson
4. jim.greenhill