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Scientists expected Obama administration to be friendlier

A culture of politics trumping science, many say, persists despite the president's promises. The use of potentially toxic dispersants to fight the gulf oil spill is cited as just one example.

July 10, 2010|By Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — When he ran for president, Barack Obama attacked the George W. Bush administration for putting political concerns ahead of science on such issues as climate change and public health. And during his first weeks in the White House, President Obama ordered his advisors to develop rules to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch."

Many government scientists hailed the president's pronouncement. But a year and a half later, no such rules have been issued. Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out.

"We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.

White House officials, however, said they remained committed to protecting science from interference and that proposed guidelines would be forwarded to Obama in the near future.

But interviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.

"Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently," said Francesca Grifo, the organization's director of scientific integrity.

For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency.

Most of the examples provided by Ruch, Grifo and others come from scientists who insist on anonymity, making it difficult for agencies to respond specifically to the complaints. Officials at those agencies maintain that scientists are allowed and encouraged to speak out if they believe a policy is at odds with their findings.

The director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John P. Holdren, said in a statement last month that the president effectively set policy in his March 2009 memorandum calling for administration-wide scientific integrity standards.

"There should not be any doubt that these principles have been in effect — that is, binding on all executive departments and agencies," Holdren said, adding that "augmentation of these principles" will be coming soon.

Still, Grifo said, the volume of the complaints indicates a real problem and makes it "vital" that the Obama administration issue additional instructions. While overall respect for science may have improved under Obama, several scientists said in interviews that they were still subject to interference.

Ruch, referring to reports from government scientists in Alaska, said that under Bush, the agency that issues oil and gas drilling leases "routinely prevented scientists from raising ecological concerns about the effects of oil spills, introduction of invasive species, and any other issue that might trigger the need for fuller environmental review."

In keeping the Bush Interior Department managers and policies in place, Ruch said, Obama appointees have "turned a blind eye toward federal court rulings that said Bush-era lease reviews were environmentally deficient, as well as a GAO report documenting how agency scientists were routinely stifled and ignored."

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman at the Interior Department, disagreed with Ruch's assertion, saying that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "has made it very clear that decisions will be made based on a cautious, science-based approach."

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