[Paleopsych] NYT: Bush vs. the Laureates: How Science Became a Partisan Issue
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Tue Oct 19 16:48:38 UTC 2004
Bush vs. the Laureates: How Science Became a Partisan Issue
NYT October 19, 2004
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
[This is kinda long and I have not read it, though I know it will be of
great interest to several here. Let me know if I might read it.]
Why is science seemingly at war with President Bush?
For nearly four years, and with rising intensity,
scientists in and out of government have criticized the
Bush administration, saying it has selected or suppressed
research findings to suit preset policies, skewed advisory
panels or ignored unwelcome advice, and quashed discussion
within federal research agencies.
Administration officials see some of the criticism as
partisan, and some perhaps a function of unrealistic
expectations on the part of scientists about their role in
policy debates. "This administration really does not like
regulation and it believes in market processes in general,"
said Dr. John H. Marburger III, the president's science
adviser, who is a Democrat.
"So there's always going to be a tilt in an administration
like this one to a certain set of actions that you take to
achieve some policy objective," he went on. "In general,
science may give you some limits and tell you some boundary
conditions on that set of actions, but it really doesn't
tell you what to do."
Dr. Jesse H. Ausubel, an expert on energy and climate at
Rockefeller University, said some of the bitterness
expressed by other researchers could stem from their being
excluded from policy circles that were open to them under
previous administrations. "So these people who believe
themselves important feel themselves belittled," he said.
Indeed, much of the criticism has come from private groups,
like the Union of Concerned Scientists and many
environmental organizations, with long records of opposing
positions the administration favors.
Nevertheless, political action by scientists has not been
so forceful since 1964, when Barry Goldwater's statements
promoting the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons
spawned the creation of the 100,000-member group Scientists
and Engineers for Johnson.
This year, 48 Nobel laureates dropped all pretense of
nonpartisanship as they signed a letter endorsing Senator
John Kerry. "Unlike previous administrations, Republican
and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored
unbiased scientific advice in the policy making that is so
important to our collective welfare," they wrote. The
critics include members of past Republican administrations.
And battles continue to erupt in government agencies over
how to communicate research findings that might clash with
This month, three NASA scientists and several officials at
NASA headquarters and at two agency research centers
described how news releases on new global warming studies
had been revised by administrators to play down
definitiveness or risks. The scientists and officials said
other releases had been delayed. "You have to be evenhanded
in reporting science results, and it's apparent that there
is a tendency for that not to be occurring now," said Dr.
James E. Hansen, a climate expert who is director of the
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan.
Glenn Mahone, the assistant administrator of NASA for
public affairs, yesterday denied that any releases on
climate had been held up or modified by anything other than
normal reviews. "There has been a slowdown," he said.
But he insisted, "There is nothing in terms of any kind of
approval process with the White House."
Earlier this year, after continuing complaints that the
White House was asking litmus-test questions of nominees
for scientific advisory panels, the first question asked of
a candidate for a panel on Arctic issues, the candidate
said, was: "Do you support the president?"
When asked about such incidents, officials with the Bush
campaign call attention to Mr. Bush's frequent queries to
the National Academy of Sciences as evidence of his desire
for good advice on technical issues.
"This president believes in pursuing the best, most
objective science, and his record proves that," said Brian
Jones, a campaign spokesman.
Yet complaints about the administration's approach to
scientific information are coming even from within the
government. Many career scientists and officials have
expressed frustration and anger privately but were
unwilling to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.
But a few have stepped forward, including Dr. Hansen at
NASA, who has been researching global warming and conveying
its implications to Congress and the White House for two
Dr. Hansen, who was invited to brief the Bush cabinet twice
on climate and whose work has been cited by Mr. Bush, said
he had decided to speak publicly about the situation
because he was convinced global warming posed a serious
threat and that further delays in addressing it would add
to the risks.
"It's something that I've been worrying about for months,"
he said, describing his decision. "If I don't do something
now I'll regret it.
"Under the Clinton-Gore administration, you did have
occasions when Al Gore knew the answer he wanted, and he
got annoyed if you presented something that wasn't
consistent with that," Dr. Hansen said. "I got a little fed
up with him, but it was not institutionalized the way it is
Under the Bush administration, he said, "they're picking
and choosing information according to the answer that they
want to get, and they've appointed so many people who are
just focused on this that they really are having an impact
on the day-to-day flow of information."
Disputes between scientists and the administration have
erupted over stem cell policy, population control and
Iraq's nuclear weapons research. But nowhere has the clash
been more intense or sustained than in the area of climate
There the intensity of the disagreements has been stoked
not only by disputes over claimed distortion or suppression
of research findings, but on the other side by the enormous
Several dozen interviews with administration officials and
with scientists in and out of government, along with a
variety of documents, show that the core of the clash is
over instances in which scientists say that objective and
relevant information is ignored or distorted in service of
pre-established policy goals. Scientists were essentially
locked out of important internal White House debates;
candidates for advisory panels were asked about their
politics as well as their scientific work; and the White
House exerted broad control over how scientific findings
were to be presented in public reports or news releases.
An Early Skirmish
Climate emerged as a prickly issue in
the first months of Mr. Bush's term, when the White House
began forging its energy policy and focusing on ways to
increase domestic use of coal and production of oil.
In March 2001, a White House team used a single economic
analysis by the Energy Department to build a case that Mr.
Bush quickly used to back out of his campaign pledge to
restrict power plant discharges of carbon dioxide, the main
heat-trapping gas linked to global warming.
The analysis, from December 2000, was based on a number of
assumptions, including one that no technological innovation
would occur. The result showed that prompt cuts in carbon
dioxide from power plants would weaken the economy.
Other analyses, including some by other branches of the
Department of Energy, drew different conclusions but were
Advice from climate experts at the Environmental Protection
Agency was sought but also ignored. A March 7 memorandum
from agency experts to the White House team recommended
that the carbon dioxide pledge be kept, saying the Energy
Department study "was based on assumptions that do not
apply" to Mr. Bush's plan and "inflates the costs of
achieving carbon dioxide reductions." The memo was given to
The New York Times by a former E.P.A. official who says
science was not adequately considered.
Nonetheless, the White House team stuck to its course,
drafting a memo on March 8 to John Bridgeland, the
president's domestic policy adviser, that used the energy
study to argue for abandoning the campaign promise.
None of the authors was a scientist. The team consisted of
Cesar Conda, an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and
now a political consultant; Andrew Lundquist, the White
House energy policy director, who is now an energy
lobbyist; Kyle E. McSlarrow, the chairman of Dan Quayle's
2000 presidential campaign and now deputy secretary of
energy; Robert C. McNally Jr., an energy and economic
analyst who is now an investment banker; Karen Knutson, a
deputy on energy policy and a former Republican Senate
aide; and Marcus Peacock, an analyst on science and energy
issues from the Office of Management and Budget. They
concluded that Mr. Bush could continue to say he believed
that global warming was occurring but make a case that "any
specific policy proposals or approaches aimed at addressing
global warming must await further scientific inquiry."
A copy of the memo was recently given to The New York Times
by a White House adviser at the time who now disagrees with
the administration's chosen policies.
The Environmental Protection Agency tried one more time to
argue that Mr. Bush should not change course.
In a section of a March 9 memo to the White House headed
"Global warming science is compelling," agency officials
said: "The science is strongest on the fact that carbon
dioxide is contributing, and will continue to contribute,
to global climate change. The greatest scientific
uncertainties concern how fast the climate will change and
what will be the regional impacts. Even within these bands
of uncertainty, however, it is clear that global warming is
an issue that must be addressed."
On March 13, Mr. Bush signed and sent a letter to four
Republican senators who had sought clarification of the
administration's climate plans. In it, Mr. Bush described
the Energy Department study as "important new information
that warrants a re-evaluation, especially at a time of
rising energy prices and a serious energy shortage."
He said reconsideration of the carbon dioxide curbs was
particularly appropriate "given the incomplete state of
scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to,
global climate change."
The letter also reiterated his longstanding opposition to
the Kyoto Protocol, the climate treaty now moving toward
enactment in almost all other industrialized countries.
In the next months, the White House set up a series of
briefings on climate science and economics for the cabinet
and also sought the advice of the National Academy of
Sciences. The experts convened by the academy reaffirmed
the scientific consensus that recent warming has human
causes and that significant risks lie ahead. But the
administration's position on what to do has not changed.
A handful of experts who have worked
on climate policy in the Bush and Clinton administrations
say that both tried to skew information to favor policies,
but that there were distinct differences.
Andrew G. Keeler, who until June 2001 was on the
president's Council of Economic Advisers and has since
returned to teaching at the University of Georgia, said the
Clinton administration had also played with economic
calculations of the costs of curbing carbon dioxide
emissions, in its case to show that limiting emissions
would not be expensive.
But it made available all of the assumptions that went into
its analysis, he said; by contrast, the Bush administration
drew contorted conclusions but never revealed the details.
"The Clinton administration got these lowest possible
costs by taking every assumption that would bias them
down," he said. "But they were very clear about what the
assumptions were. Anybody who wanted to could wade through
Tilting the Discussion
Some of the loudest criticisms of the administration on
climate science have centered on changes to reports and
other government documents dealing with the causes and
consequences of global warming.
Political appointees have regularly revised news releases
on climate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, or NOAA, altering headlines and opening
paragraphs to play down the continuing global warming
The changes are often subtle, but they consistently shift
the meaning of statements away from a sense that things are
growing warmer in unusual ways.
The pattern has appeared in reports from other agencies as
Several sets of drafts and final press releases from NOAA
on temperature trends were provided to The Times by
government employees who said they were dismayed by the
On Aug. 14, 2003, a news release summarizing July
temperature patterns began as a draft with this headline:
"NOAA reports record and near-record July heat in the West,
cooler than average in the East, global temperature much
warmer than average."
When it emerged from NOAA headquarters, it read: "NOAA
reports cooler, wetter than average in the East, hot in the
Such efforts have continued in recent weeks. Scientists at
the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a leading research
center studying climate, worked with public affairs
officials last month to finish a release on new studies
explaining why Antarctica had experienced cooling while
most of the rest of the world had warmed.
The results, just published in a refereed scientific
journal, showed that the depletion of the ozone layer over
Antarctica had temporarily shifted atmospheric conditions
in a way that cooled the region, but that as the layer
heals in coming decades, Antarctica would quickly warm.
The headline initially approved by the agency's public
affairs office and the scientists was "Cool Antarctica May
Warm Rapidly This Century, Study Finds."
The version that finally emerged on Oct. 6 after review by
political appointees was titled "Study Shows Potential for
Antarctic Climate Change."
More significant than such changes has been the scope and
depth of involvement by administration appointees in
controlling information flowing through the farthest
reaches of government on issues that could undermine
Jeffrey Ruch, who runs Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility, a network for whistle-blowers who identify
government actions that violate environmental laws or
rules, said the Bush administration had taken information
control to a level far beyond that of its predecessor.
"The Clinton administration was less organized and
systematic, with lots of infighting, kind of like the old
Will Rogers joke 'I belong to no organized political party;
I'm a Democrat,' '' Mr. Ruch said.
"This group, for good or ill, is much more centralized," he
added. "It's very controlled in the sense that almost no
decision, even personnel decisions, can be made without
clearance from the top. In the realm of science that
becomes problematic, because science isn't neat like that."
Dr. Marburger, the president's science adviser, defended
"This administration clearly has an attitude about climate
change and climate science, and it's much more cautious
than the previous administration," Dr. Marburger said.
"This administration also tries to be consistent in its
messages. It's an inevitable consequence that you're going
to get this kind of tuning up of language."
Another area where the issue of
scientific distortion keeps surfacing is in the composition
of advisory panels. In a host of instances documented in
news reports and by groups like the Union of Concerned
Scientists, candidates have been asked about their
politics. In March 2003, the American Association for the
Advancement of Science criticized thosequeries, saying in a
statement that the practice "compromises the integrity of
the process of receiving advice and is inappropriate."
Despite three years of charges that it is remaking
scientific and medical advisory panels to favor the goals
of industry or social conservatives, the White House has
continued to ask some panel nominees not only about their
political views, but explicitly whether they support Mr.
One recent candidate was Prof. Sharon L. Smith, an expert
on Arctic marine ecology at the University of Miami.
On March 12, she received a call from the White House. She
had been nominated to take a seat about to open up on the
Arctic Research Commission, a panel of presidential
appointees that helps shape research on issues in the far
north, including the debate over oil exploration in the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The woman calling from the White House office of
presidential personnel complimented her résumé, Dr. Smith
recalled, then asked the first and - as it turned out -
only question: "Do you support the president?"
"I was taking notes," Dr. Smith recalled. "I'm thinking
I've lost my mind. I was in total shock. I'd never been
asked that before."
She responded she was not a fan of Mr. Bush's economic and
foreign policies. "That was the end of the interview," she
said. "I was removed from consideration instantly."
In interviews, senior administration officials said that
most advisory panels reflected a broad array of opinions
and backgrounds and that Mr. Bush had the right at least to
know where candidates stood on his policies.
"The people who end up on these panels tend to be pretty
diverse and clearly don't all support the president's
policies," Dr. Marburger said. "I think you'd have to say
that the question is not a litmus-test question. It's
perfectly acceptable for the president to know if someone
he's appointing to one of his advisory committees supports
his policies or not."
To some extent, the war between science and the
administration is a culture clash, both supporters and
critics of Mr. Bush say.
"He uses a Sharpie pen," said John L. Howard Jr., a former
adviser to Mr. Bush on the environment in both the White
House and the Texas statehouse. "He's not a pencil with an
eraser kind of guy."
In the campaign, Mr. Bush's team has portrayed this trait
as an asset. His critics in the sciences say it is a
Dr. Marburger argues that when scientific information is
flowing through government agencies, the executive branch
has every right to sift for inconsistencies and adjust the
tone to suit its policies, as long as the result remains
He said the recent ferment, including the attacks from the
Union of Concerned Scientists, Democrats and environmental
groups, all proved that the system works and that objective
scientific information ultimately comes to the surface.
"I think people overestimate the power of government to
affect science," he said. "Science has so many
self-correcting aspects that I'm not really worried about
He acknowledged that environmental and medical issues, in
particular, would continue to have a difficult time in the
policy arena, because the science was fundamentally more
murky than in, say, physics or chemistry.
"I'm a physicist," Dr. Marburger said. "I know what you
have to do to design an experiment where you get an
unambiguous result. There is nothing like that in health
The situation is not likely to get better any time soon,
say a host of experts, in part because of the growing array
of issues either underlaid by science, like global warming,
or created by science, like genetic engineering and
"Since the Sputnik era we have not seen science and
technology so squarely in the center of the radar screen
for people in either the executive branch or Congress,"
said Charles M. Vest, the president of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and a member of the President's
Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. "I think
it's inevitable we're going to have increasing conflicts
and arguments about the role it plays in policy."
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