When science gets censored - Environmental Science & Technology

When science gets censored. Jerald L. Schnoor. Environ. Sci. Technol. , 2005, 39 (15), pp 311A–311A. DOI: 10.1021/es0533139. Publication Date (Web):...
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Comment▼ When science gets censored


f there is a “no-spin zone” anywhere on earth, it should be in the realm of science. However, the Bush Administration has chosen to spin science in unprecedented ways and now has even begun to censor environmental reports at the final stage of publication. This can only cease when the present administration becomes more transparent, when lobbyists do not have direct influence on government decisions, and when brave souls blow the whistle on what’s happening. A case in point is Rick Piltz, who resigned in March from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and wrote a 14-page memo on how science gets censored (see interview in this issue on pp 316A–317A). Piltz spilled the beans that Philip Cooney—the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a lawyer, and a former official of the American Petroleum Institute— made hundreds of changes to the first and final drafts of the Climate Change Science Program’s Strategic Plan, substantially slanting the document and weakening the conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. Last month, Cooney resigned from CEQ and was subsequently hired by ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said there was absolutely no connection between Cooney’s departure and the furor created by Piltz’s resignation. Another brave soul is Erick Campbell, a former Bureau of Land Management state biologist in Nevada who authored key sections of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the consequences of increased grazing of animals on government land. The draft report warns that such policies would pose a “significant adverse impact on wildlife.” When the final EIS was published, the Bush Administration had removed that phrase and other critical portions before announcing it would relax restrictions on grazing those lands. Houston, we have a problem. If the system isn’t broken, it is (at least) in severe disrepair. To be sure, other administrations have spun science and permeated political views into the rhetoric of inquiry, but this blatant disregard for scientific consensus at the final stage of publication is new and flagrant. I believe the current administration is on a different and dangerous course. • Scientific reports are vetted (censored) by lawyers and bureaucrats at CEQ at the final stage of the approval process without further scientific input. • White House officials are used as watchdogs to create a chilling effect in committee meetings, while coordinating strategy with conservative think tanks and industry lobbyists. • Substantive reports, such as the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variabil© 2005 American Chemical Society

ity and Change (www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/nacc/default. htm) and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s third assessment report Climate Change 2001 (www.ipcc.ch), which were vetted by hundreds or even thousands of scientists, are being removed from websites (byte burning), citation lists, follow-on reports, and from discussion by administration officials in a policy designed to erase “unfavorable” reports from the collective memory. • “Skeptics” are routinely deployed to respond to consensus reports, even though their ranks are few in number and low in scientific stature (Science 2005, 308, 482). • Uncertainty is emphasized as a political strategy to confuse the public and to delay or curtail reasonable government action. Relying on uncertainty as an excuse for inaction is the hallmark of the Bush Administration’s environmental policy. It is invoked in almost every situation, a kind of safety shield against any regulation that may upset special interests. While I served as a liaison, the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board was asked to discuss policy implications of the precautionary principle that was being implemented in Europe as the basis for some environmental regulations. The precautionary principle states, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Christine Todd Whitman and Linda Fisher, who were then the EPA Administrator and the chief of staff, respectively, were quite adamant that the Advisory Board should not even discuss it. At the time, I was really perplexed, but in hindsight I believe that Administrator Whitman knew that it was a nonstarter with the Bush Administration and could only get her (and us) into trouble. It’s a shame, because making decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty is precisely what’s needed. When science gets censored, I suspect that most citizens have no way of knowing. Still, the truth will finally come out—that’s the beauty of the scientific method. But when science gets censored, it is a sign of the low regard in which government officials hold scientists and their process. This attitude also runs counter to the best interests of the country. People and the environment lose, and it has to stop.

Jerald L. Schnoor Editor [email protected] AUGUST 1, 2005 / ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY ■ 311A