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Philadelphia Inquirer: Muzzling of Federal Scientists Must Stop

February 08, 2007
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This op-ed was coauthored by GAP Executive Director Mary Brumder, and Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Bush administration's suppression and distortion of scientific research in federal agencies has been both widespread and remarkable - and it cannot be allowed to continue.

The new Congress has an opportunity to restore integrity and objectivity to federal science, and prevent its continued manipulation for political purposes.

To achieve this, Congress must protect the whistle-blower rights of federal government scientists. By continually weakening critical science agencies, this administration is threatening our nation's unparalleled legacy of scientific achievement.

This administration's political interference in science has occurred in agencies throughout the federal government. Climate-science agencies have been notable targets. There, the administration has regularly misrepresented the science, quashed reports, and hampered reporters' access to experts to support the president's desire to avoid regulating emissions that cause global warming. NASA's lead climate scientist, James Hansen, revealed last year that he had been pressured by a political appointee to stop speaking about the dangers of the earth's increasing temperatures. Even when Hansen spoke about global warming as a private citizen, NASA officials threatened him with "dire consequences" if he did not stop.

This was not an isolated case. Just months ago, the Department of Commerce was caught blocking the release of a fact sheet put together by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggesting global warming may contribute to the frequency and strength of hurricanes. In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency eliminated a section on climate change from its annual Report on the Environment, because the White House demanded edits that would have misrepresented the scientific consensus.

At the same time, a high-ranking White House official directly edited scientific reports to overstate the level of uncertainty associated with global warming. As a result, public knowledge about global warming has suffered, as has our ability to craft solutions to this complex problem.

As public servants, federal scientists are entrusted with the responsibility of conducting and supporting research to protect our health, safety, and environment and conveying their findings to other scientists, policymakers, and the public. Their research plays a crucial role in increasing our nation's living standards, ensuring our national security, and protecting our families' health and well-being. Every day federal scientists are muzzled is another day the government fails to make fully informed policy decisions.

Many scientists have had enough. More than 11,000 scientists, including 52 Nobel laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients, and nearly 200 members of the National Academies of science, engineering and medicine have signed a statement calling for an end to this abuse. Their protests are echoed by a bipartisan group in Congress and senior advisers to both Republican and Democratic presidents. Yet the administration's political inference with science continues.

It's time for checks and balances. The new Congress must ensure that abuse of and political interference with federal agency science ends. Congress should start by scheduling oversight hearings to investigate and hold accountable those who suppress, misrepresent, or otherwise abuse science in our federal agencies or seek to muzzle federal scientists. Individuals who do so should be subject to appropriate penalties, from official reprimands to dismissal. Then, Congress should require federal agencies to restore scientific integrity in policymaking.

One way to do this is to grant federal scientists the right to speak freely and openly about their scientific research. At present, there is no law that effectively protects these workers from retaliation for publicly speaking truthfully about their science - or about efforts to muzzle them. Congress needs to upgrade federal whistle-blower protection for government agency scientists.

This administration's manipulation of scientific information must stop. It weakens our critical science, public health, and environmental agencies. It demoralizes our nation's cadre of dedicated federal scientists. It threatens our nation's scientific leadership and capacity. It erodes the public's trust in government, and compromises our citizens' welfare. Our new Congress has a chance to demonstrate leadership in protecting the integrity of our government science. Our citizens - and our scientists - are counting on them.

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