The Politics of Advice

Biased scientific information in government agencies

Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

 

Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
How intellectual initiatives form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost

Endnotes

Return to Contents

 

Most of us have heard the charges that the Bush administration has been stacking scientific advisory committees and misusing or selecting scientific information for its own ends. Perhaps the best summary of the evidence for this was presented in a March 2004 publication by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) titled “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,” but there are other sources as well, from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and ideological experiences.

Controversy around an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, for example, sparked much commentary. In June 2003 an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times alleging that White House officials urged the epa to alter information in a report on climate change. A thousand-year record on temperature change was deleted, with the effect of giving weight to a more recent and limited analysis that supported the administration’s view. Other references to scientifically respected studies were reportedly deleted, while a reference to a discredited study of temperature records funded by the American Petroleum Institute was allegedly inserted.

A recent proposal by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also may jeopardize the integrity of the scientific advice the government receives. The OMB has proposed a rule that would centralize control of the review of scientific information needed for federal policy making at OMB. It would prohibit most scientists funded by an agency from being a peer reviewer, presumably for that agency. It would permit, however, scientists employed or funded by industry to serve as reviewers. Anthony Robbins, a professor of public health at Tufts, says in the UCS report that the change “would radically restrict access to scientific advice at the government agencies on whom we rely to protect public health.” The law, specifically the Federal Advisory Committee Act, requires federal advisory committees to be balanced and free of influence by appointing authorities.

Other experienced and influential individuals have spoken out on what seems to be a trend in biasing science and the advisory culture.

• In a letter to the New York Times, Russell Train, the EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Ford, stated that the Bush administration undermined the epa and that their degree of manipulation was virtually unprecedented.

• A government official involved with getting permission to reproduce a brochure on greenhouse gas emissions stated anonymously in the UCS report that “in nearly fifteen years of government service, I can’t remember needing clearance from the White House for such a thing.”

• Donald Kennedy, editor of Science and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and president of Stanford, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, “I don’t think any administration has penetrated so deeply into the advisory committee structure as this one, and I think it matters. If you start picking people by their ideology instead of their credentials, you are inevitably reducing the quality of the advisory group.”

• Republicans for Environmental Protection noted in a press release that the “withholding of vital environmental information is getting to be a bad habit with the Bush Administration” (online at www.repamerica.org).

• Lewis Branscomb, President of the American Physical Society, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor saying, “I’m not aware that [Nixon] ever hand-picked ideologues to serve on advisory committees, or dismissed from advisory committees very well-qualified people if he didn’t like their views. . . . What’s going on now is in many ways more insidious. . . . It happens behind the curtain. I don’t think we’ve had this kind of cynicism with respect to objective scientific advice since I’ve been watching government, which is quite a long time.”

This sampling of criticism makes it clear that reputable and experienced people think something relatively new is going on, or that it is happening to a greater degree than in previous administrations. If so, it could shape priorities at research universities, particularly in areas where government funding has an influence.

In the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education,
however, John H. Marburger III, Bush’s science adviser, has denied charges that the administration has slanted science to serve its own interests. He says the administration strongly supports science, increasing spending on research and development by 44 percent since 2001.

The Bush administration is undoubtedly acting in “good faith,” in accordance with what it believes. Is it holding itself to high standards and requiring more data before it commits itself to support various proposals? Does it believe that advisory committees should be broader in scope in the interest in fairness? Perhaps, but the testimonials and events described above suggest that something of concern is going on.

We may be entering an era when administrations extend
their political influence down to science policy and selection of
science advisors. Selecting only the expert advice and input the administration wants to hear is dangerous and must be avoided. We expect administrations to be fair, open to expert information, and lawful, and we expect them not to cater to special interests. It can be difficult to deal with many kinds of administrations; they have power over peoples’ lives, and they can legally, defensively, and even paradoxically justify much.

In this case, there is an election looming that gives us a choice. But if administrations begin to get comfortable with this emerging pattern, a change in political leadership may not be enough.