Political Appointees Pollute Waters at Ocean Agency
Washington, D.C.— Joining a growing number of scientists deeply troubled by the Bush administration’s distortion of science for political ends, scientists at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service report that agency science is suffering under political manipulation and inappropriate influence of special interests. According to the survey released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the agency is increasingly unable to carry out its charge of protecting imperiled fish, seal and whale populations from extinction.
“Scientists are struggling against a strong political current at NOAA Fisheries,” said UCS Washington Representative Lexi Shultz. “From global warming to fish and wildlife, we’ve seen that the Bush administration has little regard for scientific findings that don’t support its predetermined policies. And compromised science here can only be bad for fish, bad for fishing interests, and bad for the taxpayers who pay for and expect an honest process.”
The two organizations distributed a 34-question survey to more than 460 NOAA Fisheries scientists in offices across the country to obtain their perceptions about the scientific integrity of agency decision making:
- A strong majority (58%) said they know of cases in which high-level Commerce Department appointees or managers “have inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries determinations;” and more than half of all respondents (53%) are aware of cases in which “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention;” and
- Only one-quarter of the scientists say they “trust NOAA Fisheries decision makers to make decisions that will protect marine resources and ecosystems.”
The political pressure is also reflected in the agency’s scientific and technical output:
- More than one third of respondents working on such issues (37%) have “been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that are protective” of marine life; and
- Nearly one in four (24%) of those conducting such work reported being “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a NOAA Fisheries scientific document.”
In essays submitted on the topic of how to improve the integrity of scientific work at the agency, the predominant concern raised by the scientists was political interference. One biologist wrote, “It seems that we are encouraged to think too much about the consequences and how to get around them, rather than just basing our recommendations on the best available data.” Another said, “ . . . it is not uncommon to be directed to not communicate debates in writing. I have also seen written documents that include internal discussions/debate purposefully omitted from administrative records with no valid reasoning.”
“The Bush administration seems to have a ‘No Fish Left Behind’ policy,” said PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose, who recruited current and former NOAA employees to develop the questionnaire. “These scientists are trying to serve the public and fulfill the agency mission to protect fisheries and marine animals, but they feel the science is being undermined at every turn, directly through manipulation and indirectly through cuts to scientific resources.” Not surprisingly, 42% of respondents assessed morale at NOAA Fisheries as poor or extremely poor.
“Government scientists need protections so that they are not forced to choose between violating their scientific ethics or losing their job,” added Shultz.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is expected to introduce a bill that will prohibit political tampering or censorship of government science and protect scientists who blow the whistle on abuses. The bill will be a companion to the House “Restore Scientific Integrity” bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Gordon (D-TN). The House bill now has 50 cosponsors.
The UCS/PEER survey was mailed out to scientists with a request that they fill it out on their own time and more than a quarter of all the agency scientists (27%) did so.