The self-righteous "sky is falling" tone of a report accusing the Bush administration of tailoring science to narrow political goals may be a tipoff that at least some of its authors have an agenda other than the disinterested pursuit of truth. Some authors of the 46-page study, organized by the liberal Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, certainly have strong political views about President Bush.
Still, the reputations of most of the signatories are hard to impeach. They include former federal science agency directors for both Republican and Democratic administrations, top university and science association presidents and 20 Nobel laureates.
The report cites many examples in which the Bush administration at least appears to have suppressed or distorted information on potential dangers:
* In May 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency was finishing a report documenting that 8% of women between the ages of 16 and 49 had blood levels of mercury that could lead to reduced IQ and motor skills in their offspring. The White House Office of Management and Budget barred the report's release until an EPA official leaked it to reporters nine months later. At the time, the administration was lobbying against tightened restrictions on mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants.
* A former Agriculture Department research biologist, James Zahn, says that in 2001 and 2002 his superiors barred him at least 11 times from publicizing his finding that potentially harmful bacteria float in the air surrounding industrial hog farms.
* On the better-known issue of climate change, the White House made so many alterations in an EPA report last year that then-Administrator Christie Whitman decided to publish the report without the climate-change section.
Russell Train, who was EPA administrator under presidents Nixon and Ford, recently criticized the pressure on Whitman, saying, "Never once, to my best recollection, did either the Nixon or Ford White House ever try to tell me how to make a decision."
The president's own science advisor, John Marburger III, conceded Wednesday that "given the prestige of some of the individuals who have signed on to this, I think they deserve additional response, and we're coordinating something."
Congress too should get involved. Senate Commerce and Science Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) should hold hearings on the report's most credible charges.
The ultimate result of putting science below politics includes the swaths of uninhabitable polluted land that stain the former Soviet Union and children crippled by unchecked mercury pollution in a Japanese coastal area. The U.S. is nowhere near that state, but its growing record is troubling.