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Political Scene

Suppressing Science in Policy: Sharing Responsibility
Eloise Kendy

Debate over the Bush administration’s use of scientific information in policy-making recently came to the forefront with the release of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science. The report and accompanying statement, signed by 62 of the nation’s leading scientists, echoes the theme that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has developed in Congressional hearings over several years, culminating with the August 2003 release of Politics and Science in the Bush Administration. Both reports allege that the Bush administration routinely mischaracterizes scientific findings to bolster its political agenda.

While some of the allegations might have merit, public outcry has unfairly extended beyond the examples cited in the reports. What some people fail to recognize is that although science plays a role in many policy decisions, it is rarely the only contributing factor. In many cases, policy-makers have the best science at their disposal, but weigh other valid considerations into their final decisions. In still other cases, perhaps the blame lies more with scientists themselves than with policy-makers. The first step toward rectifying any purported misuse of science in policy is to distinguish between these three situations.

Science suppressed

The Waxman and UCS reports point to several examples of scientific evidence being suppressed in the decision-making process, effectively denying policy-makers access to pertinent scientific information. Perhaps most notorious among geoscientists is the White House’s editing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Draft Report on the Environment, described by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as “a comprehensive roadmap to ensure that all Americans have cleaner air, purer water and better protected land.” An internal EPA memorandum circulated during the editing process noted that after the White House edited the chapter on climate change, the section “no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change.” Eventually, the entire chapter was dropped from the report.

Less publicized is EPA’s refusal to release analyses of greenhouse-gas legislation opposed by the administration. EPA has the important role of providing technical support to Congress by analyzing proposed legislation upon request. But when Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) requested a detailed analysis of his bill to regulate emissions limits so that Congress could compare his approach to that of the administration’s Clear Skies initiative, EPA refused to release its report. EPA’s analysis, when later uncovered by The Washington Post, projected that Carper’s bill would reduce emissions to levels lower than those projected under the Clear Skies Act and would save 17,800 more lives. This appears to be a clear case of withholding science from legislators who need it as a basis for decision-making.

Science considered

In many other cases, decision-makers are well-appraised of the science, but base their decisions on other factors. For example, the January 2004 decision by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe to cancel future servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope reportedly was based on astronaut safety concerns. Famous for its ability to photograph distant galaxies and astronomical phenomena, the Hubble is considered by the American Astronomical Society to be “the most productive telescope of all time.” Next year’s planned servicing mission would extend the telescope’s useful life by about five years. But policies — even those affecting scientific endeavors — must account for other considerations, including political, economic and social values.

Although O’Keefe did not cite budgetary concerns and President Bush’s new space initiative (announced days before the Hubble decision) as motives for the cancellation, it would have been reasonable for NASA to consider them as well. As White House Science Advisor John Marburger affirmed in his rebuttal to the UCS report: “Even when the science is clear — and often it is not — it is but one input into the policy process.”

Science disengaged

The third situation is when scientists themselves perpetuate confusion that misguides policy. For example, hydrologists have long known that the rate of groundwater recharge has no bearing on water-table declines due to groundwater pumping. Rather, it is the change in groundwater recharge and discharge induced by pumping that determines the extent of water-table declines. Under natural conditions, recharge and discharge roughly balance each other, resulting in a stable water table over time. Groundwater pumping increases the discharge rate. Only by correspondingly increasing recharge or decreasing natural discharge can the water table restabilize. Yet, many water managers worldwide, ill-informed by hydrologists (or in compliance with flawed regulations), routinely base their annual withdrawal plans on total annual recharge, leading to undesirable water-table declines.

Scientists’ imprecise use of language can similarly mislead policy-makers. A recent, highly publicized U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, carefully uses the word “withdrawals” rather than “consumption” to describe water use. Unfortunately, the press release from USGS used the words interchangeably, stating that “despite the increasing need for water, we have been able to maintain our consumption at fairly stable levels for the past 15 years.” Numerous publications (including Geotimes online, March 19, 2004) regretfully repeated the mistake in their own reports on the findings.

The distinction between withdrawal and consumption is critical because not all water withdrawn from the hydrologic system is necessarily consumed. For example, irrigated crops only evapotranspire, or consume, what they need; the rest may return to rivers and aquifers as irrigation return flow. And the amount of water that crops need to evapotranspire remains the same, regardless of the amount applied. The fact that the irrigated area of the United States is increasing means that consumption almost certainly is increasing as well. Increased consumption explains why water tables continue to decline, despite the stable withdrawals reported by USGS. The confusion between withdrawal and consumption lures policy-makers into promoting expensive irrigation efficiency improvements such as drip and sprinkler systems, even in places where the water “saved” would otherwise replenish the hydrologic system. In many places, the “saved” water has been used to expand the irrigated area, thus increasing water consumption and exacerbating water shortages.

Recent publicity of the use of science in policy offers an opportune platform from which to reflect not only on the issues raised by politicians and UCS, but also on scientists’ own role in widening the gap between science and policy. As geoscientists, we can welcome the public examination, but must also realize that the critique cuts two ways.

Kendy is the 2003-2004 American Geological Institute (AGI) Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. She is spending her one-year fellowship working on public lands, water resources, nuclear waste disposal and abandoned mine reclamation in the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev). Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. E-mail:

The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Sen. Reid or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.


"Steady water use," Geotimes online, March 19, 2004

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