Harvard Scientists Accuse White House of Distorting Science Facts
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued the statement last Wednesday in conjunction with a report it commissioned to examine suspicions that the Bush administration has consistently mishandled scientific advice. The Harvard professors were among 60 scientists nationwide who voiced their discontent.
The UCS presented the statement, titled “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making,” to White House Science Advisor John Marburger III last Thursday along with a 38-page report outlining the scientists’ complaints.
Since then, an additional 1,000 scientists have added their names to the statement.
The statement alleges that the administration has systematically “manipulated the process through which science enters into its [policy] decisions.”
“A society like ours, or any society, has to rely on the objectivity of science and doctors and information in some cases warning about the potential dangers that we face,” said signatory and Nobel Laureate Eric S. Chivian, a Harvard Medical School professor and the director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment. “Any society who ignores its scientists and doctors is heading for disaster.”
Among its claims, the statement accuses the Bush administration of censoring or disregarding scientific findings that do not support its agenda—on issues ranging from clean air and endangered species to weapons searches in Iraq—and appointing unqualified industry professionals to advisory committees.
While most of the scientists agree that every White House tends to manipulate scientific advice, the signatories of the statement claim that the Bush administration has done so on an unprecedented scale.
“So many signatories are people who have had extensive experience in the process of scientific advice dating back to administrations to the 1960s, and even to them this administration’s actions stand out,” said UCS board member James J. McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard.
Marburger told Knight Ridder that the report that accompanied the scientists’ statement appeared to be “like a conspiracy-theory report.”
“I don’t think it makes the case for the sweeping accusations that it makes,” he said, arguing that the report draws on unrelated and anecdotal pieces of evidence.
But he acknowledged that the high stature of the statement’s signatories—the list includes 20 Nobel laureates—sends a red flag to the administration.
“[The list of signatories is] evidence we are not communicating with them as we should and I’ll have to deal with that,” he said.
Journalist Seth Shulman said he was approached by the UCS last year to conduct the investigation. He said he drew his conclusions from already-published press reports and interviews with current or recently resigned administration officials in mid-to-high ranking positions, many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
“We distilled the gathered information until no matter how you interpret it, there were irregularities people haven’t seen much the likes of,” Shulman said. “There was a lot of fact checking, and we tried to make what we said unimpeachable.”
He said he has not received any factual objections to the findings in the report, and said he is not aware of anyone who declined to sign the report because of factual objections.
Many of the Harvard scientists took particular issue with the Bush administration’s treatment of global warming. The UCS statement accuses the White House of demanding “extensive changes” to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), leading the EPA to delete an entire section concerning the impact of human activity on climate change.
Chivian said the administration has interfered with progress in combating global warming.
“One of the major issues we work on is global warming and climate change, loss of biological diversity, and the administration has really stood in the way of policy progress by the Congress in supporting efforts to reduce effects of global warming and protect the ecosystem,” he said.
Lewis Branscomb, the former director of the National Bureau of Standards and a professor emeritus of science and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, said he signed the report as “a matter of conscience,” but added that he expected it to have little effect on the White House.
“I don’t expect [the administration] to ask me for my advice any time soon,” he said.
—Staff writer Carol P. Choy can be reached at email@example.com.