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Beyond Stem Cells and Global Warming: Media Ignore Bush Administration's Widespread Interference with Science

04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The fact that the Bush administration routinely and repeatedly allowed politics to trump science in the policy-making process is well-known and extensively documented. Yet, the media continue to act otherwise.

During coverage of President Barack Obama's executive order on stem cell research and his presidential memorandum on scientific integrity, most reports gave only a cursory account of Bush's interference with science, adopting a common refrain that critics have accused the Bush administration of putting politics before science on issues such as stem cells and global warming. Other reports adopted a simple "politics" frame, portraying the memorandum as a "break with" or "rebuke of" Bush, thereby reducing Obama's concern about scientific integrity to something intended to score political points.

The decline of science reporting at newspapers and cable news outlets means the political press and Beltway punditocracy will play an increasingly important role in discussing the use of science in government decision-making, especially as it relates to politics. Given that they largely failed to mention the widespread abuse of science under Bush while covering Obama's stem cell announcement, this is a worrisome development. Members of the Obama administration are going to have their work cut out for them in undoing some of the decisions made by Bush officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Interior Department, and the Justice Department. It is important that the public has some context for this work to help them understand why it is important.

Moreover, it is vital that the media help the public appreciate the significance of political interference in science. As Chris Mooney warned in The Republican War on Science, we're not just talking about issues important to public health and the environment, "but the very integrity of American democracy, which relies heavily on scientific and technical expertise to function." Indeed, political interference with science in the policy-making process threatens our health, our environment, our prospects for economic renewal, and our standing in the world. Bush's history on this front cannot be forgotten, nor can we afford for it to be repeated.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which spent years researching and documenting the political assault on science during the Bush presidency, states the case in no uncertain terms:

In recent years, scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information.

In 2004, the UCS released a report titled Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science. Over the next four years, the UCS conducted surveys of scientists at seven federal agencies and issued numerous reports documenting specific instances in which Bush officials ignored, manipulated, distorted, or suppressed scientific evidence. The list of the federal agencies, departments, and offices where the UCS identified political interference in science is staggering. It includes more than 20 different entities:

• Bureau of Land Management
• Centers for Disease Control
• Climate Change Science Program
• Consumer Product Safety Commission
• Department of Agriculture
• Department of Defense
• Department of Education
• Department of Energy
• Department of Health and Human Services
• Department of Justice
• Department of State
• Election Assistance Commission
• Environmental Protection Agency
• Federal Emergency Management Agency
• Fish and Wildlife Service
• Food and Drug Administration
• Forest Service
• National Aeronautics and Space Administration
• National Institutes of Health
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Occupational Safety and Health Administration
• Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement
• President's Council on Bioethics
• U.S. Geological Survey

Far from being limited to stem cells and climate change, the reports covered a host of issues across a wide range of government decision-making, including:

• Ground Zero
• endangered species
• chemical safety
• air pollution
• toxic pollutants
• public lands use
• drug approvals
• contraception
• sex education
• whistleblowers
• EPA libraries
• federal scientific advisory system
• Iraq war intelligence
• school vouchers
• racial profiling
• voter fraud

Were the media interested, they would have found an A-Z Guide to Political Interference in Science at the UCS website documenting the litany of specific instances of interference by Bush officials; a timeline establishing when those instances were exposed; all of the organization's reports; and an extensive record of previous reporting on the issue.

The media could have also consulted Mooney's 2005 book The Republican War on Science, which chronicled the Bush administration's politicization of science. In a review of the book for The New York Times, John Hogan wrote that Mooney "addresses a vitally important topic and gets it basically right," later adding that Mooney "argues that the current administration has imposed its will on scientific debates in a more systematic fashion, and he cites a slew of cases ... to back up his claim." Scientific American called the book a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists."

Instead, many media outlets hailed Obama's break with Bush on stem cells but saw fit to simply ignore the history of the widespread abuse of science under Bush. In fact, many media outlets covered Obama's executive order on stem cells without even mentioning his memorandum on scientific integrity. That was certainly the case with television news. The evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS all covered Obama's stem cell announcement, but none mentioned his memorandum on scientific integrity. The day of Obama's announcement and the White House ceremony, none of CNN's or MSNBC's evening political talk shows addressed the memorandum or Bush's record of political interference in science. MSNBC's Chris Matthews began that evening's edition of Hardball by exclaiming: "The triumph of science." Yet, he neglected to mention Obama's memorandum on scientific integrity, let alone raise the issue of the Bush administration's political interference in science.

The story of Bush's widespread and systematic political interference with science also went largely untold in newspaper reports; the extensive documentation of that interference was essentially ignored or diminished by reporting that suggested the charges were merely allegations by critics of Bush's approach to stem cells and global warming.

USA Today stated that the memorandum on scientific integrity "addresses the controversy over the politicization of science that threaded through all eight years of the Bush administration." Bloomberg reported that the Bush administration "had come under criticism from Democrats and some independent researchers for pressuring government scientists to tailor their conclusions to support goals on such issues of climate change." The Christian Science Monitor stated that "government employees" had "charged" that the Bush administration interfered with science "in a range of areas," including stem cells, climate change, and "reproductive health policy," while Politico noted that "[m]any on the left and in the scientific community believe that, from stem cells to climate change, George W. Bush manipulated or ignored data and research for political purposes." The Washington Post stated the Bush administration was "often accused of using selective scientific findings to support its ideological views on climate change, health-care decisions, and other issues." In explaining the purpose of Obama's memorandum, The Hill reported that it was a "respon[se] to charges from scientists and Democrats that President George W. Bush put his political ideology ahead of scientific evidence in areas such as stem cell research and climate change." Similarly, McClatchy Newspapers described Obama as joining "a chorus of critics complaining that the Bush administration ignored science on issues such as global warming."

The Associated Press also presented the Bush administration's well-documented politicization of science as a two-sided issue. It reported: "Many scientists and environmental activists complained that the Bush administration had censored and marginalized science. That's a perception that Bush science adviser John Marburger repeatedly called untrue and unfair." The AP did, however, cite four specific examples of interference, though three were on the issue of global warming.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times fared only somewhat better. One L.A. Times article was fairly typical in simply noting that Bush was accused of allowing "prevailing religious and conservative views" to displace science. A second L.A. Times article was more extensive, reporting that Bush's approach to science created a "rift" with "a large segment of the nation's research community," which felt that "scientific data had been ignored or skewed as the Bush administration set policy on climate change, oil and gas drilling, and other aspects of environmental and health policy." The article cited at least three specific examples of interference. Similarly, The New York Times ran two articles, one stating simply that "[m]any Democrats criticized the Bush administration for politicizing science on a range of issues, from climate change to protecting endangered species to family planning," while a second was more extensive, noting that "Bush was often accused of trying to shade or even suppress the findings of government scientists on climate change, sex education, contraceptives and other issues, as well as stem cells." The article further reported:

Congressional Democrats and scientists themselves issued report after report asserting that the White House had distorted or suppressed scientific information: including efforts to strip information about condoms from a government Web site and the editing of air quality reports issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The problem with newspaper reports that made passing reference to the use of science under Bush, of course, is that they failed to note that political interference was widespread and systematic and offered little sense of the breadth and scope of the problem or the many different forms of political interference across the government on a far-ranging set of issues beyond stem cells and climate change. These reports also failed to inform their readers that the charges of political interference with science under Bush are well-substantiated with credible evidence from a range of sources, including agency officials and scientists, independent scientists and scientific organizations, and independent reporting.

It is telling that the UCS was mentioned in just three reports: a New York Times article noted that "[t]he Union of Concerned Scientists ... maintains an 'A to Z' list on its Web site of 'case studies' in what it calls the politicization of science under Mr. Bush"; a link to the Web page for "The Union of Concerned Scientists' list of 'abuses' of science" appeared below an article on the McClatchy Newspapers website; and the Q&A section of a USA Today article featuring answers derived from "interviews with researchers and policy experts" noted that Obama's scientific integrity memorandum "echoes a 2008 Union of Concerned Scientists call for transparency in how federal agencies make science decisions and for insulation from political interference."

In keeping with the virtual blackout on Chris Mooney and The Republican War on Science -- Mooney has never been interviewed on network or cable news or invited to appear on any of the political talk shows, despite favorable book reviews and appearances on CSPAN's Book TV, and NPR's Fresh Air With Terry Gross and Science Friday -- the media found a way not to mention Mooney or his book at all.

The UCS states that changes in the structure of the federal government "have impaired the ability of federal scientists to fulfill their responsibility to serve their agencies and the public good. Solving these systemic problems will require leadership from the president, continued oversight from the legislative branch, and the persistent and energetic engagement of both scientists and citizens." To that, I would add the media. If the media fail to take seriously political interference in science, and if columnists and pundits ignore the issue in the nation's largest opinion-making forums such as the op-ed pages and the television political talk shows, the issue will disappear from the public radar, and the public will not be engaged in ways that can help ensure scientists are afforded the opportunity to pursue research and speak openly and honestly about their work.