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The cost of silence

January 31, 2006

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has long had a problem telling the difference between federal employees doing their jobs and federal employees saying whatever the president wishes were true. The administration acts as though these were one and the same. They're not.

So it is not surprising that NASA's top climatologist is complaining about attempts to shush him after he warned last month that prompt action was needed to combat global warming. James E. Hansen told the New York Times that NASA officials had ordered reviews of his future lectures and Internet postings.

NASA's public relations people replied that scientists shouldn't be making policy statements. When it comes to global warming, the Bush administration's policy is that there's no need to reverse the trend and that industry will slow things down voluntarily. It would be tantamount to lying for a scientist with Hansen's expertise to silently go along with this.

Others who told unpopular truths have felt the sting. Lawrence B. Lindsey, a former top Bush economic advisor, was fired after he estimated that a war in Iraq would cost $200 billion. (The tab so far has already reached $251 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, and there are credible estimates that the total will top $1 trillion.) Now-retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki was derided and then pushed aside for presciently warning as Army chief of staff that 200,000 troops would be needed for such a war. Medicare's top financial analyst, Richard S. Foster, was threatened with the loss of his job if he told Congress how much the Medicare prescription drug legislation would really cost. And for all the talk about not trying to quiet its scientists who stick only with scientific facts, the Food and Drug Administration tried for a while to block a report by Dr. David J. Graham showing that deaths and cases of heart disease caused by the painkiller Vioxx were far higher than previously reported.

The president has every right to demand that the members of his administration avoid unseemly public bickering and unprofessional confusion-mongering. At the same time, the public expects the experts in its government to provide the best possible information, not the information as Bush would like to hear it. Quelling their honest opinions demeans them and leads to ill-informed public policy.

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