The Bush administration is clamping down on scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the latest agency subjected to controls on research that might go against official policy.
New rules require screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists who study everything from caribou mating to global warming. The rules apply to all scientific papers and other public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Top officials at the Interior Department’s scientific arm say the rules only standardize what scientists must do to ensure the quality of their work and give a heads-up to the agency’s public relations staff.
“This is not about stifling or suppressing our science, or politicizing our science in any way,” Barbara Wainman, the agency’s director of communications, said Wednesday. “I don’t have approval authority. What it was designed to do is to improve our product flow.”
Will objectivity be compromised?
Some agency scientists, who until now have felt free from any political interference, worry that the objectivity of their work could be compromised.
“I feel as though we’ve got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do. And to me that’s a very scary thing. I worry that it borders on censorship,” said Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist in the USGS field station at Santa Cruz, Calif.
“The explanation was that this was intended to ensure the highest possible quality research,” said Estes, a researcher at the agency for more than 30 years. “But to me it feels like they’re doing this to keep us under their thumbs. It seems like they’re afraid of science. Our findings could be embarrassing to the administration.”
The new requirements state that the USGS’s communications office must be “alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature.”
The agency’s director, Mark Myers, and its communications office also must be told — prior to any submission for publication — “of findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding to ensure that proper officials are notified and that communication strategies are developed.”
No ‘scientific gotcha’
Patrick Leahy, USGS’s head of geology and its acting director until September, said Wednesday that the new procedures would improve scientists’ accountability and “harmonize” the review process. He said they are intended to maintain scientists’ neutrality.
“Our scientific staff is second to none,” he said. “This notion of scientific gotcha is something we do not want to participate in. That does not mean to avoid contentious issues.”
The changes amount to an overhaul of commonly accepted procedures for all scientists, not just those in government, based on anonymous peer reviews. In that process, scientists critique each other’s findings to determine whether they deserve to be published.
From now on, USGS supervisors will demand to see the comments of outside peer reviewers’ as well any exchanges between the scientists who are seeking to publish their findings and the reviewers.
Criticism over scientific integrity
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has been criticized over scientific integrity issues. In 2002, the USGS was forced to reverse course after warning that oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would harm the Porcupine caribou herd. One week later a new report followed, this time saying the caribou would not be affected.
Earlier this year, a USGS scientist poked holes in research that the Interior Department was using in an effort to remove from the endangered species list a tiny jumping mouse that inhabits grasslands coveted by developers in Colorado and Wyoming.
Federal criminal investigators are looking into allegations that USGS employees falsified documents between 1998 and 2000 on the the movement of water through the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The USGS had validated the Energy Department’s conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, scientists and advocacy groups alike are worried about closing libraries that contain tens of thousands of agency documents and research studies. “It now appears that EPA officials are dismantling what it likely one of our country’s comprehensive and accessible collections of environmental materials,” four Democrats who are in line to head House committees wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson two weeks ago.
Democrats about to take control of Congress have investigations into reports by The New York Times and other news organizations that the Bush administration tried to censor government scientists researching global warming at NASA and the Commerce Department.