March 12, 2004
Stanford graduate students challenge White House handling of environmental science
By Mark Shwartz
The Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., made headlines last month when it released a statement signed by 20 Nobel laureates accusing the Bush administration of misrepresenting mainstream science to advance its political agenda. Presidential science adviser John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), dismissed the union's allegations as "deeply flawed" and "troubling." But the issue has not gone away and remains a hot topic of debate in major scientific journals.
Joining the fray is a group of Stanford University graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who have launched an independent campaign urging scientists to sign a statement of concern about the White House approach toward environmental research. The statement challenges the "misuse and distortion of environmental science by the Bush administration" on several critical issues, including climate change, pollution, forest management and oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
So far, more than 1,200 environmental scientists have signed the statement posted on the group's website, www.scienceinpolicy.org, which is not affiliated with the university. The number of signatories continues to grow daily, according to the group's co-founder, Stephen Porder, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences.
"Policymakers have the right to take scientific evidence and weigh it with social, economic and other factors," Porder says. "But when they start mischaracterizing the science, we feel that goes beyond the pale."
Porder helped launch the website last November, along with 10 other graduate students and postdocs from Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley. As of March 12, a total of 1,243 scientists had signed the statement of concern, including 241 professors and 625 graduate students from more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States and overseas.
Thirty-six government scientists also have signed it, representing several federal agencies: the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Institutes of Health.
"We don't see ourselves as partisan," Porder says. "There are many Democrats who misuse science, and many Republicans who don't. But we believe that the Bush administration is unprecedented in its misuse of science, particularly when it comes to the environment."
The online statement of concern includes the following language: "When the administration invokes science, it relies on research at odds with the scientific consensus, and contradicts, undermines or suppresses the research of its own scientists."
A prime example, according to the scienceinpolicy.org website, was President Bush's decision to reject the findings of the United Nations panel on climate change, which projects that the average surface temperature of the Earth will rise between 2.7 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. According to scienceinpolicy.org, the White House dismissed the U.N. forecast out of hand, even though it reflects the broad consensus of most climate experts. Porder also claims that, in an effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, the White House distorted scientific assessments of oil reserves in the refuge and minimized the potential environmental impact of oil exploration there.
"Further, the administration cloaks environmentally damaging policies under misleading program names like 'clear skies' and 'healthy forests,' " says the scienceinpolicy.org statement. "As a result, the public and the media often wrongly believe that this administration uses sound science to help promote a healthy environment. In reality, the best available science indicates that President Bush's policies will cause and exacerbate damage to the natural systems on which we all depend."
An OSTP press officer in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on scienceinpolicy.org or any of its allegations.
In addition to the online campaign, Porder and his colleagues have written several op-ed pieces on topics such as climate change and the importance of objectivity in science. They also hope to raise the organization's profile by writing letters to the editors of major scientific journals.
"I applaud the work of the Stanford students and postdocs who created scienceinpolicy.org, and I am optimistic that their clear message will have an impact," says Christopher Field, a professor, by courtesy, of biological sciences at Stanford and director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
"Unbiased scientific information is essential for sound policy," he adds. "The scienceinpolicy.org group builds a very strong case that the Bush administration, while recognizing this in principle, has consistently distorted the science it brings to the public and the policy process."
An authority on the biological impact of climate change, Field was among the first to sign the online statement. He is also a principal signatory on the February declaration by the Union of Concerned Scientists. But some scientists have been reluctant to sign the scienceinpolicy.org statement, says Porder, including several government researchers who expressed concerns about offending their superiors.
"Scientists have an ethical responsibility to stand up when we see science being mischaracterized," Porder maintains. "I hope this is the beginning of a movement among scientists to inform the public about the true state of science -- something we haven't done very well so far."
A letter to the editor from scienceinpolicy.org will be published in the March 18 edition of the journal Nature. Contents of the letter are embargoed until Wednesday, March 17, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. A copy can be obtained from Stephen Porder.