Topic: Science & Technology

Meddling Bureaucrats, Cheating Scientists

A mini-furor erupted when it was revealed that a former oil lobbyist with no scientific background edited the administration’s report on climate change on the way to the publisher. White House staffer Philip A. Cooney resigned after the story broke, but the Bush Administration insisted that the changes he had made to the document were a legitimate part of the review process. Examples of his changes that were published in the press did appear to be edits of tone rather than substance; Cooney altered the document’s characterization of the data rather than the data itself. Still, scientists loudly objected to the idea of a non-scientist with an established bias in favor of oil interests (Cooney worked for more than 10 years for the American Petroleum Institute) having a hand in the final draft. For its part, the White House insisted that Cooney’s involvement was proper, and that his changes were reviewed and approved by the National Academies of Science and President Bush’s science adviser, Dr. John H. Marburger III. Cooney’s job, after all, is chief of staff to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees the president’s environmental policies.

Wrong? Right? It depends. Climate change is not just a scientific issue; it is a white-hot political one in which science, policy, economics and politics are hopelessly intermeshed. While scientists would like to prop up the fiction that they are not influenced by political considerations and bias, this is obviously not true: scientists are every bit as subject to conclusion-bending biases as former employees of the petroleum industry. Climate studies, as either brilliantly or simplistically illustrated by Michael Creighton in his current thriller, State of Fear (depending on the reader’s bias), are not quite as conclusive as the global warming adherents would have us believe, and thus it is understandable that an administration that has adopted the position that it is unproven would seek to moderate a climate change report’s fervor. If the report is a political document, than such edits are appropriate and ethical as long as the public understands that the final result is a homogenized product of serial editors. Well, the document is a political document; anything produced by government agencies is a political document. But the Bush administration was not direct and open about the fact of Cooney’s input. They left it up to the press, in this case the New York Times, to discover it. That, and not the edits themselves, is the ethical transgression here.

Ironically, the same week that this story broke, the British Journal Nature published the results of an anonymous survey on the ethics of the nation’s scientists. It found that 33%, or one third, admitted to ethical misbehavior ranging from outright fraud and changing results because of pressure from funders to claiming credit for a colleague’s work. The survey, created and tabulated by Brian Martinson of the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Bloomington, Minnesota, asked more than 3,200 U.S. scientists about a long list of unethical activities. The researchers concluded that “U.S. scientists engage in a range of behaviors extending far beyond falsification, fabrication and plagiarism that can damage the integrity of science.”

So the fact that a document is prepared or reviewed by scientists apparently does not guarantee its integrity. Until scientific conclusions are so inherently reliable that policy-makers can accept it as fact rather than opinion, supposition or ideological posturing, scientists ought to accept the inevitability that others will attempt to frame the data to suit their own needs. As Nature’s survey shows, we are far from that stage. The Bush Administration needs to be open and honest about its actions, but the scientific community needs to do some ethical soul-searching and house-cleaning before its complaints can be taken seriously.

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