Bush Administration's "Science" Is Under Fire

A "pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings [is found] across numerous federal agencies"

3 min read

On 18 February, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)--an advocacy organization headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.--issued a report denouncing the U.S. government for misrepresenting science and scientific opinion on issues from air pollution and climate change to drug evaluation and military intelligence. The report, titled "Scientific Integrity in Policy-making," and a statement accompanying its release, signed by 60 Nobel laureates, said that "when scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions."

Photo: KPT

Dual Purpose?

This photograph of high-grade aluminum tubes was used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in an address to the United Nations to support his argument that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program. It turns out that government scientists had disputed that claim, with support from Powell's own intelligence office.

UCS chair Kurt Gottfried, an emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., says that the Bush administration has "undermined the quality of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government's outstanding scientific personnel." Gottfried has been a well-known participant in policy debates since the storm over President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program, of which UCS was prominent in its criticism and opposition.

In a widely quoted rebuttal of UCS's report, the president's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, referred to the episodes documented as essentially disconnected, amounting to normal bureaucratic disagreements and not adding up to a pattern of distortion. Naturally, Gottfried disputed that, insisting that the evidence formed what he as a scientist would see as a pattern in any other context. He told IEEE Spectrum that it is "significant, widespread, and new" and much more striking than anything comparable seen "in any previous administration."

Whether or not one chooses to see irregularities, and whether one regards UCS as an organization expressing merely the opinion of some scientists, the incidents documented in the report are indisputably disturbing and serious, bearing as they do on issues of the very highest policy import. In climate science, for example, the administration asked the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to review work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global organization of scientists that meets regularly to reach scientific consensus on global warming. Yet, after the academy's review reaffirmed the opinion that human activity was playing a role in climate change--and did so with support from major scientific organizations, such as the American Geophysical Union, in Washington, D.C.the U.S. government excised that conclusion from official reports and statements of policy.

In September 2002 and again in June 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed entire sections of reports rather than modifying language along lines the administration wanted. An internal EPA memo of 29 April 2003 is reproduced in an appendix to the UCS report; in it, the author tells the head of the EPA that it might be advisable to delete the climate section of the June environmental report rather than risk a confrontation with the White House, which the EPA inevitably would lose.

An equally serious incident is described in which Iraq's Saddam Hussein was accused of importing aluminum tubes to use in the manufacture of uranium enrichment centrifuges. This charge was repeated many times by the president and administration in the months leading up to the war against Iraq, and was echoed in all the mainstream press, including this magazine [see photo, "Dual Purpose?"].

UCS found that scientists at three national laboratories--Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore--had taken issue with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's conclusions about the tubes. The laboratory scientists pointed out that the specifications for the tubes indicated that they would much more likely be used for rocket casings, that Iraq had, in fact, previously imported tubes with identical specs for just that purpose, and that there was no evidence of Iraq's importing the hundreds of other items that would be needed to make centrifuges.

Despite the scientists' concerns, the administration continued to repeat the centrifuge argument, dismissing an evaluation done by a U.S. Department of State intelligence unit that supported the laboratory scientists. UCS pointed out that in the speech at the United Nations in which Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for war, he took note of the dissenting opinion but lumped the laboratory scientists with Iraq, as if they were mere parrots for Saddam. ("Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue...," he said.)

Gregory Thielmann, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who headed the State Department intelligence unit, confirms the accuracy of the UCS report. "Senior officials in the U.S. government misrepresented the evidence on the aluminum tubes," he told Spectrum, and ignored a growing consensus within U.S. intelligence that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges. Further, Powell misrepresented technical arguments in his UN report, ignoring new evidence.

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