Hogwash? John Marburger and UCS disagree about how many times--and why--a USDA researcher was told not to speak out about health hazards from hog farms.

White House Denies Politicizing Science

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The White House came out swinging last week against critics who have accused the Bush Administration of systematically manipulating science to advance its political agenda. In a sharply worded rebuttal, White House science adviser John Marburger attempts to turn the tables by accusing the accusers of "errors, distortions, and misunderstandings." Critics, however, aren't impressed, and the debate is likely to continue.

Marburger's reply was prompted in part by a statement released in February, signed by 60 prominent scientists, that accused the Bush Administration of suppressing or ignoring technical findings that don't square with its political views (ScienceNOW, 18 February). The statement accompanied a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Cambridge-based advocacy group, that listed more than 20 incidents in which it claimed the Administration had politicized science, including stacking advisory panels with ideological allies and doctoring reports. Marburger last month promised Congress a point-by-point response, and another senior official predicted it would "shred" every UCS allegation.

The 20-page rebuttal--released on 2 April--falls short of that high standard, although it does expose errors and incomplete explanations in the UCS report. The White House concedes, however, that a preamble to proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on mercury emissions improperly included language from industry memos. It also agrees that a former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher was blocked from discussing controversial findings that hog farms can produce airborne bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. But although UCS says microbiologist James Zahn was muzzled by USDA on "no fewer than 11 occasions," Marburger's report says the right number is five. As for the Administration's controversial appointments to advisory panels dealing with lead exposure and ergonomics issues, the rebuttal dismisses them as "rare events."

"I don't detect that [the White House] has acknowledged any problem ... and that's a problem," says Lewis Branscomb of Harvard University who signed last month's statement. Marburger will soon find out what scientists think of the report: He hopes to discuss the matter this month with a group of signers attending the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. And the Senate Commerce, Transportation, and Science Committee, which last month cancelled a hearing on the UCS report, says it still plans to look into the issue.

Related sites
The UCS Report
The White House response

Posted in Policy