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Climate of Fear

It’s not every day that thousands of scientists manage to agree on something, perhaps other than the earth being round or that what goes up must come down. But President George W. Bush has a knack for uniting his critics. More than 11,000 researchers nationwide have recently concluded that his administration is distorting scientific knowledge and communication for its own political gains. This assertion is voiced in a petition titled “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,” which the Union of Concerned Scientists first drafted in 2004. As of mid-January, 11,116 scientists—including E.O. Wilson and 52 Nobel Prize winners—had endorsed the document.

Last October environmental activists hammered this point home when they draped the banner “Bush: Let NOAA Tell the Truth!” over the entrance to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s headquarters. NOAA climate researchers had complained that the top brass suppressed their research linking global warming and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. The banner’s message echoes charges made by a parade of government scientists who study climate change: that for the past six years they have been silenced, ignored, or otherwise censored by Bush administration officials.

Addressing a crowded auditorium at New York’s New School University last year, James Hansen, the embattled NASA climate scientist, fumed, “It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States.” Hansen had accused NASA administrators with trying to prevent him from speaking out on global warming (see Field Notes, “The Hot Seat,” November-December 2006).

Thomas Knutson, a NOAA scientist whose published research suggests an increase in Atlantic hurricane intensity with rising global temperatures, also reported administration interference with his ability to discuss his work in public. Knutson says that he was prohibited from appearing as a NOAA scientist on two national television programs to discuss his findings. “My feeling is that I should have been allowed to have those interviews,” he says.

But administration officials have been accused of tampering with more than just climate science. From public health to endangered species management, Bush appointees have been charged with misusing science to alter policy. For example, Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in the Department of the Interior, has made headlines for the past two years for editing the work of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. MacDonald, who has no training as a wildlife biologist, criticized and twisted FWS assessments of imperiled species living on resource-rich western habitats, including sage-grouse and prairie dogs, to block or delay their listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The freeze on scientific candor may be thawing. Last fall, shortly before the Democrats won back both houses of Congress, a group of 14 Democratic legislators headed by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg asked the inspectors general of the Commerce Department and NASA to launch formal investigations into accusations of tampering with climate science.

The oversight can’t come soon enough for 11,000-plus scientists. “We have not had adequate public debate in Congress about these problems,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security and a signatory of the petition. “I’m hoping that changes.”—Bob Grant

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