Swans Commentary » swans.com December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009  



No Laurels To Rest On
Helping Barack Obama restore scientific integrity
and set his environmental agenda


by Jan Baughman





(Swans - December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009)  While few are paying attention, George W. Bush is spending the remainder of his presidency pushing through pro-industry legislation, further undermining environmental regulations, relaxing pollution levels, circumventing protections for endangering species, and even permitting concealed, loaded guns in national parks and wildlife preserves, perhaps so we can shoot those bears whose habitat we're enjoying. Reversing these rules will require considerable time, money, and manpower in a period in which we should be drastically increasing our attention toward aggressive climate change solutions and environmental protections. In these final lame duck days, it would be futile to attempt to exert public influence on the outgoing administration -- its mission is clear -- but it's not too soon to make demands upon the incoming one while its staff and policies are being formed.

One reputable organization that is working diligently to shape the environmental agenda of Barack Obama, his transition team, the Cabinet nominees and Senate committee members who have the power to approve them, is the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). UCS is a non-profit, science-based organization of about 250,000 members that does not accept corporate or government money, only member contributions. It was founded in the 1960s by MIT faculty members who called for "greater emphasis on applying scientific research to pressing environmental and social problems rather than military programs." Its first report criticized Richard Nixon's proposed anti-ballistic missile system, and its work helped build support for the 1972 ABM treaty between US and the Soviet Union. It has been very active on opposing nuclear weapons, monitoring the safety of nuclear power plants and the work of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It promotes clean energy and clean vehicles, sustainable and green agriculture and food, and an aggressive approach to global warming that includes cutting heat-trapping emissions to 80% below 2000 levels by the year 2050. For each issue, UCS provides a detailed analysis of the problem, a description of the proposed solutions, information on how to help, and an accounting of its successes.

It was in 2003 that UCS began to learn of a growing, fundamental challenge that had to be dealt with before any of the above issues could be fully addressed: restoring scientific integrity in policymaking and removing political influence from federal government science. From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration, scientists were reporting that they were now working in a culture of secrecy, sidelined from the decision-making process, and fearing retaliation for expressing concerns about their agency's mission. In a 2007 survey of EPA scientists, 60% of respondents reported personally experiencing "at least one type of political interference during the past five years, " 18% personally experienced "frequent or occasional 'changes or edits during review that change the meaning of scientific findings,'" and 22% "personally experienced frequent or occasional 'selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.'" The pressure of commercial interests on reversing or withdrawing scientific conclusions was noted among 42% of respondents.

An equally bleak picture was revealed in a 2006 survey of FDA scientists, 18% of whom, like their EPA counterparts, reported having "been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or my conclusions in an FDA scientific document," and 60% of whom "knew of cases 'where commercial interests have inappropriately induced or attempted to induce the reversal, withdrawal or modification of FDA determinations or actions.'"

Based on these few survey results (they deserve a thorough read), one has to question the source when hearing that our air is safe to breathe, that the mercury level in our tuna is not harmful, and the chemicals in our ubiquitous plastic water bottles do not pose a health threat.

One can be sure that pro-industry/anti-regulation special interest groups are organizing in preparation for anticipated changes that will be introduced by the Obama administration. To counter their influence, it is crucial that we strengthen the voices of those who speak on behalf of the planet and all of its inhabitants. Unlike many grass-roots organizations that focus on a single issue, UCS covers a broad range -- it's a one-stop shop for your precious charitable dollars. And, you do not have to be a scientist to join -- anyone can sign up for its Action Network and receive e-mail updates on specific activities underway and guidance on how to most effectively submit comments to the government on a particular issue. The Network includes over 200,000 members, a number that can have a significant impact when acting en bloc. Scientists can also join the Restoring Scientific Integrity Network. Finally, we can register our demands now, while Obama and his proposed cabinet are shaping policy, by commenting on the transition Web site. Mr. Obama said repeatedly during his campaign that he is counting on advocacy groups to hold his feet to the fire. That is one campaign promise which is up to We the People to keep.



Information for this article was obtained from the Union for Concerned Scientists Web site and from the author's attendance at a UCS lecture entitled "Restoring Integrity to Federal Science: a look at UCS's work to reverse the abuse of science in policymaking in the post-Bush era" (December 17, 2008; San Francisco, CA). The author is a UCS member. This article was written on behalf of the author and not the UCS.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/jeb203.html
Published December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009