White House spin reaches science research

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The next time NASA hunts for fuel for new rockets, it might consider harnessing the explosive mix of science and politics.

Over recent weeks, federally funded scientists in and out of government have touched off small firestorms for publishing research results or making public statements that run counter to Bush administration policies. And Congress is investigating allegations that federal agencies have punished them as a result.

Political interference with science is nothing new, of course. But the flash points have become more intense of late.

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Some analysts say these cases fit a larger pattern under President Bush: The administration sets a policy direction, cherry-picks available results to fit that policy, and suppresses discussion of results that don't fit. While past administrations have done the same, critics say the Bush team has raised it to an art form.

Others, however, say the problem has deeper roots. Politicians, advocacy groups, and even scientists try to establish a clear boundary between the "purity" of science, supposedly free of agendas, and the rough-and-tumble of politics. In fact, no such line exists, observers say.

People attempt to bolster their standing in a policy debate by making "factual, science-based arguments," says Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University and former staff member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. But "the science is always contestable at some level.... Ultimately, you end up hiding behind a claim about the science to make a claim about the kind of world you'd like to see."

Many administrations have exerted political pressure on scientists. In 1993, William Happer, head of the Energy Department's Office of Energy Research was forced to resign after contradicting a statement then-Vice President Al Gore made about the effects of the ozone hole over the South Pole. But such pressure has become more troubling under Mr. Bush, critics argue. Abuses range from rewording press releases to ignoring the advice of scientific advisory panels and attempts to control media access to experts, they say.

In the best-known case, James Hansen, who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, says the administration has tried to muzzle his criticism of White House policy on global warming. He says he has ignored orders that federal public-relations officers approve in advance his lectures, papers, online postings, as well as media requests to interview him.

In other cases, the efforts to spin science are relatively subtle, such as changing the wording on a science-related press release. It's a case of framing an issue, says Margaret Duffy, who chairs the advertising department at the University of Missouri's journalism school in Columbia, Mo.

In a recent NASA release about Greenland's melting glaciers, for example, "generally warmer climate" appeared instead of the more accepted "global warming."

One source of the problem: Political appointees in upper-level public-affairs offices with no background in science writing, or even an interest in science, are making such changes, according to several government press officers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At first, the administration's approach to science seemed par for the course, Caltech President David Baltimore reportedly told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a recent speech. But as the White House began aggressively advancing its idea of a "unitary executive," which implies a much stronger role for the president in interpreting US laws, he said he had a change of heart.

The suppression of science that fails to match ideology "is no accident," he said. It's one manifestation of "a theory of government we must vociferously oppose."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has issued strong statements recently that underscore the agency's duty to publish the results of its scientists' work. That's an important first step that heads of other federal agencies involved in science should follow, says Lexi Shultz, who tracks federal efforts to manipulate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Last year, the UCS published a study laying out many examples of what it saw as the administration's abuse of science. But she argues that more is needed: stronger protection for whistle-blowers, a stronger role for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and for Congress, a rebuilt Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Yet for all the concern that science may not be getting a fair hearing in the halls of government or is being spun by politicians, some observers caution that scientists may need a more thorough grounding in democratic politics.

Many scientists recall President Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about the danger of the rising postwar military-industrial complex, notes Mr. Happer, now a Princeton physicist. In the same speech, however, Eisenhower also warned: "We must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system...."

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