Obama's "War on Science"?

By Chris Mooney | July 14, 2010 8:02 am

There was a pretty disturbing story in the Los Angeles Times recently about how much trouble some government scientists are having in the Obama administration–which has not formally issued its promised scientific integrity rules yet.

Now, organizations whose work I trust, like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are going on record saying that there are some serious cases of science being suppressed or interfered with in various government agencies. I have not independently investigated any of the cases here, but you have got to take these kinds of charges seriously.

Let’s go through some claims from the Times article, to list and also to comment:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

These sound like very serious charges, and should be officially looked into, if that is not occurring already. Let’s continue:

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

I don’t know all the facts, but I can imagine how the decision in this case might not turn solely on science. Still, if you read the Times article, there is more elaboration, and what happened does seem pretty problematic.

And again:

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

Here I’m fairly skeptical. In a crisis, one often makes decisions in the face of huge uncertainty, and trades one danger off against another. I need more evidence that science was actually abused or undermined here, and that this isn’t simply a situation where one crappy option was chosen over another crappy option, when a decision had to be made quickly.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.

“Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently,” said Francesca Grifo, the organization’s director of scientific integrity.

With the exception of something like national security, there’s no excuse for blocking government scientists’ ability to speak with the media.

Overall, I hope the Obama White House, and specifically the Office of Science and Technology Policy under John Holdren, is looking into these charges and talking with the groups issuing them. How Holdren responds will be important in determining how this administration’s scientific record (which up to now has been very good) will ultimately be weighed.

A critical blow against the Bush administration is that, when faced with similar accusations, it simply denied them outright. So far, that looks like a key difference here: I don’t see much evidence in this Los Angeles Times story that the White House is denying problems or trying to shoot the (often anonymous) messenger.

Another difference with the Bush administration, at least so far, is that I don’t see how the alleged cases here (with the exception of the chemical dispersants issue) could be said to be coming out of a desire to protect the president’s agenda. With Bush’s administration, you could generally trace agency-level abuses of science directly to a desire to defend and promote the president’s own goals or policies, or to broader Republican ideological tendencies. Here, I’m not really seeing how that works.

But again, this all bears much more looking into.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (22)

  1. Jon

    Digby blames the problem on Bush era appointees “burrowing” into the bureaucracy and distorting the normal process:

    http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/more-burrowers-in-bureaucracy.html

    It would be interesting if that could be substantiated.

    You start to wonder if Obama’s lack of executive experience is affecting his ability to clean up the bureaucratic messes left by the last administration (the gulf oil spill comes to mind as another case where regulators weren’t doing their jobs, perhaps because they weren’t big believers in the mission of that job?)

  2. Chris Mooney

    Jon,
    That occurred to me, though I didn’t say it. But Obama has been in office long enough now that he bears full responsibility for the agencies–including the actions of any Bush holdovers within them.

  3. Sorbit

    This is disturbing indeed, but one always has to be careful in interpreting such facts since there are always going to be some such instances, no matter who the President is. I think we will have to wait before we know if this data is anecdotal, cherry-picked and sparse or whether there is a regular and causal pattern of neglect behind it.

  4. Jon

    He sure does, and I was saying something like that in my comment above. But I should think the ideology of the bureaucrats and how they got their jobs would be a relevant part of the story. I don’t know how you would report on something like that, but it seems like a story that could be told.

  5. Yeah, you can say he bears full responsibility, but even so, these people are going to make decisions on their own that the Obama Administration will have to learn of to reverse. That means that with the burrowed in Bush officials, there’s going to be quite a number of these people carrying out their own rogue policy for quite some time to come. You just have to remember who put these people in their place.

  6. ToneDeF

    “With the exception of something like national security, there’s no excuse for blocking government scientists’ ability to speak with the media.”

    I think this can be a tricky subject. Even within a scientific group there can be multiple theories presented by different scientists (what the press would call dissenting opinions). What comes out from a team should be the consensus, which hopefully is the best interpretation of the scientific evidence.

    If individual scientists are allowed speak about their “dissenting opinions” to the media, this can then cloud the subject and sometimes deminish the results. This is compounded by the fact that they are likely to “spin” their “opinion” and not present the arguments against their theories.

    On the other hand, if they strongly feel politics and not science is the driving factor, they should speak out. The difficulty is separating the spurned scientist who had his pet theory shot down from the concerned citizen.

  7. I read the same articles and I’m very concerned about this as well. In my mind this administration has to err on the side of sharing data as opposed to restricting it. The problem, to me, is there are no political consequences to such behavior. I wrote about this – giving you full props, of course…

    http://itsnotalecture.blogspot.com/2010/07/science-needs-strategy.html

    As for the oil spill, there have been far too many examples of blocking media access as well as holding the scientific community at bay. These examples directly contradict the statements about access from people like Admiral Allen and BP leadership. The excuse that the “message hasn’t filtered down” is completely ridiculous. When sunshine fails to be the best disinfectant, we have to consider more tangible forms of accountability…

  8. The Bush administration had no difficulty removing non-partisans from their positions. Why is it that Obama is unable/unwilling to do the same?

  9. The cynical part of me– which, in this case, is almost all of me– thinks that at some level it almost doesn’t matter who is president. There is the Washington way of doing things, and the primary difference between the republicans and democrats at the elected official level is the rhetoric they use and the special interests they cater to. (There are documented statistical differences among the voting public, such as acceptance of science, as has been shown on this blog.)

    During this election, though, I managed to get suckered in by Obama’s charisma. I really had the sense that this time maybe we *did* have somebody different. Hillary Clinton was clearly a “machine” person, part of the same-old same-old, but Obama seemed to me that he might really bring about some change. Not pushing democratic vs. republican causes, per se, but really doing things differently. His talk about transparency, for instance, was very appealing.

    I’ve been very disappointed since he’s been in office. He seems to be just the same-old same-old. Democrat, yes, instead of Republican, but ultimately part of the same dysfunctional dual-party-ocracy that has been running this country.

    Lawrence Lessig describes how I feel very well in this “Nation” article : http://www.thenation.com/article/how-get-our-democracy-back

    I remember having delusions that things like the War on Liquids would end in airports after Obama was elected. Of course, I recognized that as a delusion. But I really didn’t think he was going to continue the Bush era policies with regard to no fair trials for Guantanamo Bay, “rendition” of prisoners to foreign countries where they can be tortured, lack of transparency, etc. (Jon Stewart does a good job skewering Obama for this here : http://www.snowspotmedia.com/theblog/?p=1184 )

    It’s not just the entrenched Bushies. It’s the fact that nowadays the President isn’t just a person, he’s a whole committee of people… and Obama has managed to get people around him and controlling him who want to keep doing things the Washington Way, a broken way that remains out of touch from reality.

  10. Praj

    Part of the problem, Chris, is that you never clearly defined the term “War on Science” and how we can identify it. While you agreed that that everyone politicizes science to a certain degree (which is true), you simply asserted that Bush’s politicization was so bad that it constituted a “war.”

    Sure, you collected a lot of evidence to support the idea that Bush distorted left and right. But how do we know the LA Times collection also doesn’t qualify as Obama’s war? We need some independent standard to make a judgment. That way we can look at various administration’s actions and say whether they are engaging in war-like politicization of science, or whether it’s the more routine variety. But you didn’t specify how we can tell the difference.

    In my view, this was a pretty major omission from your book.

  11. Chris Mooney

    @ 11 On the contrary, the book thoroughly discusses why the Bush administration was unique. While these charges against the Obama administration are troubling, they hardly compare at this point to the magnitude of what happened in the last administration.

  12. MT-LA

    “…how this administration’s scientific record (which up to now has been very good) will ultimately be weighed.”

    Apparently, this administration’s *public* record on science has been very good, but the LA Times article clearly calls into question the behind-the-scenes record. It is the behind-the-scenes details that concern me; the president can be quite convincing when behind the podium, but I need to know that his rhetoric is being followed up by soild action.

    SK & CM: I sincerely hope that you will continue to update us on this situation. One of the major reasons I support democratic candidates in office is the perception that they will support the sciences more than republican candidates. If the current administration is turning a blind eye to science – or worse, dismissing science in deference to the all powerful “economy” – then the public should know the players involved and their roles.

  13. GM

    10. Rob Knop Says:
    July 14th, 2010 at 10:04 am
    The cynical part of me– which, in this case, is almost all of me– thinks that at some level it almost doesn’t matter who is president. There is the Washington way of doing things, and the primary difference between the republicans and democrats at the elected official level is the rhetoric they use and the special interests they cater to. (There are documented statistical differences among the voting public, such as acceptance of science, as has been shown on this blog.)

    It needs not be “the cynical part” of you, I think it is actually quite correct an observation. If you imagine an hierarchical clustering of the positions of your typical democrat, your typical republican, and your typical scientist, it would probably have two very long branches with two tiny twigs – a republican and a democrat one – on one of them…

  14. Dave in Alaska
  15. Guy

    There’s always this tug-o-war between science (protect the environment) and industry (rape the environment). Industry wants to covert raw materials into products they can sell and make profits from. Science tells us that we need to protect the environment and maintain sustainability even if will lose short-term profitability. Historically, the far-right cares mainly about industry while the far-left cares more about science and the environment. The moderates can lean either way, depending on the current economic/political climate. Bush was far-right, thus you got this whole “War on Science” with some of it’s effects still lingering today. Obama is more of a moderate. If you always want science to win then you need someone more to the left but this is unlikely to happen because of the economic reality of politics.

  16. Joe

    I think that the main gripe here centers around the failure to release official binding policy guidelines from OSTP. Dan Froomkin’s piece in HuffPo (I think it was him) last week centered on that, and involved the same primary cast of characters. PEER and UCS are just frustrated that a deadline wasn’t met, and they are ringing the alarm bells when I would argue there is no fire.

    The actual examples here are not proof of any systematic ignorance or disruption by the Obama administration. They are extremely specific and unique events. Eight years ago it was entire agencies on lockdown. This is tame stuff. They show that there might be something to worry about, but until these become the rule rather than the choice exceptions (as these examples stand now), maybe the LA Times just wanted to sell some papers.

    Maybe the editors were pissed at LeBron stealing Kobe’s spotlight and spoke up for the west-siiiiide?

  17. David

    The majority of the rules and policies of these organizations are put in place by their original mandate and mid-level management interpretations. Then it becomes ingrained in their bureaucratic memory. With the untold thousands of pages of regulations and interpretations that get shuffled back and forth in Washington on a daily basis, nobody can keep up with it. It is too much to process. The President can set the tone but the mid-level management is where these stupid interpretations of rules and mistakes happen. Many of these people who approve and authorize things have probably been in place since the Nixon administration. They are not anywhere near the level that would be associated with any administration.

    More likely they pressure scientists not to report stuff to hide what a crappy job they are doing overseeing things than it being a war on science. Likewise, they approve drilling or construction to just “go with the system” and maintain their anonymity rather than sticking their neck out and forwarding anyone’s political agenda.

  18. Chris Mooney

    Folks–Agreed it is not a war on science, nor is it systematic, etc. But the claims are worrisome; they are coming from important groups and the LA Times has given them airing. That his how the claims against Bush also started. I don’t expect this to develop into anything like what happened there, but I am glad this issue is being flagged now so that it can be addressed by the administration. Something tells me they will go about that process very differently than the last one did (just thinking back painfully to John Marburger trying to defend the indefensible on behalf of the president).

  19. I look forward to watching this develop. I’ve maintained for a long time that there is a political war with/on/using science which has been developing over time, in that any politician will cherry-pick the science that they need to try and advance their agenda. Anyone who agrees with the agenda (usually closely related to wether the (R) or the (D) at the end of their name matches that of the politician with the agenda) doesn’t dig too deep into the sources, anyone who disagrees with the agenda does dig into sources until they find information which discredits the science in their mind. In the end, average people just get confused and/or tired of the constant back and forth.

    The internet has given new light into the political process just coming into its own, and much of the political dealings going on in the dark before now have new scrutiny. The political system hasn’t adjusted to the new reality.

  20. JMW

    One should also remember that the US Federal government employs 10s if not 100s of thousands of people. Some of them are not Bush-era ideologues buried like land mines in the landscape of government, but will still have anti-science attitudes…or even an attitude of “science is one factor but not the most important in decision making.” Short of having Obama lead every single decision by hand, or replace all government decision makers with his hand-picked candidates, one cannot blame him for all actions of government.

    Without having read the book, I can’t comment on the alleged Bush-era consistency of government decision-making.

  21. Joe

    This article was cited at Volokh Conspiracy and part of the discussion criticized your book, an extended book review arguing there doesn’t really seem to be a “Republican” War On Science as such, though even he admitted there were problems in certain areas. The implication, however, is that Democrats had problems too.

    This post would have been an interesting thing to know about then.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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