Experts claim EPA under fire from Bush Administration

Kate Raiford
Published: Tuesday October 10, 2006

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In Jim Cornehls’ public policy classroom at the University of Texas-Arlington, federal employees are often invited to talk to his graduate students. Those from the Environmental Protection Agency speak of worsening conditions under the Bush Administration.

“They are afraid for their jobs if they say the wrong thing,” Cornehls said. “Young people from EPA say they are losing a lot of good young people because they don’t want to work under those conditions.”

Experts interviewed by RAW STORY indicated a wide swath of damage done by the Bush Administration to EPA. Political appointees, low scientist morale, and misuse of science extend across all aspects of government research and policy. It’s an impact that is bound to outlive the administration and might not be corrected by future presidents, the experts said.

“People need to understand how driven this administration is,” Cornehls stated. “Decisions are made on a belief system rather than on good science.”

Political appointees are one way the Bush Administration controls research. Some believe they are there to push the administration’s agenda, said Michael Halpern, outreach coordinator for scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Almost 10,000 senior scientists came out in 2003 expressing concern at “levels never before seen” over the government’s misuse of science. Halpern explained that there have been cases of misuse of science in other administrations, but now policy makers don’t have the best science to begin with, which means they can’t make the best decisions.

According to Halpern, case studies have pointed to many examples of changing data, massaging numbers, or manipulating reports. “This type of misuse of science [makes scientists] feel unable to speak,” he said. “The quality coming out of the agency will suffer.”

The Union of Concern Scientists’ 2006 survey of more than 5,000 Food and Drug Administration employees found hundreds of scientists reporting significant pressure by political appointees to alter results. The Union found a similar situation at NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but no survey was done at EPA, and an EPA spokesman said EPA does not keep data on employee satisfaction and cannot comment.

“We think that these raw numbers are cause for serious concern,” Halpern said, adding that it’s hard to accurately gauge dissatisfaction. “Qualitatively, we know scientists are not happy.”

Since political appointees will change with a new administration, it might seem that there should be no long-term cause for concern, but experts say that’s not the case.

The Bush Administration "tends to nominate very, very conservative [people], often [with] anti-environment positions, which are often lifetime appointments,” said Eric Antebi, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.

He cited global warming as a situation where simple actions have lasting, drastic effect that cannot be corrected with a new administration. “We’ve lost time,” Antebi said. “Eight years without doing anything about global warming will close off options to future leaders that will be hard to make up.”

The administration has also opened the Western United States to oil and gas drilling. Changes to the landscape could be reversible, Antebi said, but now there is a pattern of compromised protection.

Further, this administration has set the precedent that it is acceptable to politicize and misuse science, Halpern said. There’s no guarantee the next administration will be any different.

“Reforms need to be placed so no [future president] should be able to interfere in the scientific process the way the Bush Administration has in the past six years,” Halpern stated.

But it’s not all bad news, he added, noting that a political appointee’s censorship of senior NASA scientist James Hansen led to changes in NASA policy. Republicans and Democrats wrote to the NASA administration, and it eventually responded by creating a formal scientific openness policy.

“It’s a good first step,” Halpern said. “We hope that other agencies will take note.”

Currently, the Union of Concerned Scientists is working with the FDA acting commissioner to address the Union’s study that found a high level of employee dissatisfaction.

“The numbers concerned him, but he offered no concrete plan of action,” Halpern said. In six months the two will meet again, “to turn words into deeds.”.

“We don’t see this as a Republican issue, a Democratic issue,” he said. “It’s a process issue.”