Blinding Us From Science

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Science is under attack. With corporations manufacturing uncertainty to undermine studies that hurt their bottom lines and the sequester cutting billions in funding for scientific research, you’d think the American science community would be hunkered down in their labs avoiding outside interference at all costs.

A new project of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Center for Science and Democracy, is encouraging scientists to do just the opposite. The center encourages scientists to speak out and help others to better understand scientific information and to distinguish evidence from political positioning. We spoke with the Center’s director Dr. Andrew Rosenberg by phone this week. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Theresa Riley: In Bill’s conversation with public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, they talk about a “war on science” that is being waged by industries to prevent and weaken regulations. In Heads They Win, Tails We Lose, a report released last year, UCS investigators showed how widespread the practice is. What tactics do they use?

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg

Andrew Rosenberg: In the political arena, there are lots of avenues where corporate influence comes in. Sometimes it’s directly lobbying elected officials. For example, on fracking, Common Cause found that the industry has spent almost $750 million over the last decade lobbying to try to ensure that regulation isn’t increased, that the federal government stays out of fracking — even, to some extent, in the monitoring and evaluation of impacts of fracking. And that’s unfortunately a pretty common picture. On medical devices it’s a similar sum, $700 million, to lobby on behalf of medical devices and pharmaceuticals to try to keep the rules as business friendly as possible. People understand that there’s lobbying. I’m not sure they understand the magnitude.

A second way is creating a false and parallel science. Of course, that’s quite dramatic on climate change, where there’s been very extensive funding, particularly from the energy industry, of so-called climate change skeptics. I think it’s less well known that that occurs in many other fields, particularly the testing of chemicals, such as toxic contaminants, formaldehyde and silica, where the industry is creating a body of science, ostensibly of science that says, “Well, really this isn’t such a problem.”

One of their tactics is to create groups that are labeled things like Safer Chemicals for a Healthy World — I’m making that one up, but there are actual groups like this. You find out they’re funded by The American Chemistry Council (and they’re funded by the chemical industry). They cast doubt and continually challenge scientific results. Formaldehyde is a good example. The formaldehyde industry is continually challenging evidence that shows that formaldehyde is a carcinogen in the crafting of EPA regulations and product safety regulations.

Riley: In some cases, they go as far as suing scientists. For instance, Markowitz and Rosner tell Bill that in the 1970s and ’80s, the lead industry went after researchers like Herbert Needleman who had uncovered the fact that even low levels of lead were damaging children. They accused him of scientific misconduct and filed charges against him. It took several years for him to prevail.

Rosenberg: Attacking scientists unfortunately, directly and personally, has become part of the toolbox for industry and for political groups. We have instances of attacking scientists in court (as in the lead example), but in the digital age it’s become “let’s subpoena all the private emails of scientists and we’ll find something in there that will cast doubt on the results.”

For example in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP asked for help from some scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to try to estimate how much oil was leaking into the Gulf, because the government estimates seemed to be low. So these scientists came up with methods to figure out a better way to calculate how much was spilling before they capped the well and showed that the amount of oil was very much larger than had been initially estimated.

BP subsequently went to court to subpoena their private emails to cast doubt on their results. They needed to know the actual amount of oil to figure out how to cap it, but then after the fact it pertained directly to [their] liability. So they really went after these guys to cast doubt on their results by saying, “Well, gee, in the email traffic, one of the scientists said to the other, ‘I’m not sure I think that’s quite right. Maybe we ought to try it a different way,’ and ‘I’m not sure we can rely on this result’” — the usual process of science that goes on in any analysis now becomes a weapon in court, and, in addition, is not only demoralizing, but potentially expensive. It certainly dampens the enthusiasm for scientists to get involved in issues. We’ve seen that with climate change, too. It’s not a new phenomenon; it’s still going on.

Riley: What role does the media have in this, particularly in terms of facilitating the production of uncertainty and, ultimately, the undermining of the truth.

Rosenberg: We live in a very noisy media environment and there are huge changes in news and media, as you know better than I. If somebody wants to know something about fracking and they type it into Google or Bing they get a whole bunch of information and it’s really hard for someone who’s not working in the field to sort through that information and know what its provenance is. I think that’s true for many people in the media who are writing about this as well. All of this effort to undermine or misrepresent science affects the media too, because certain media outlets are spinning their own opinion pages and then cherry picking the science. We’ve done a report on News Corp reporting on climate science, for the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and for Fox News. It becomes easier for people to hammer away at their position because they’re able to go to think tanks that are funded with a particular bent, Heartland being the classic case.

I also think the media still has a tendency to say, “We’ve got to have a balanced view, so let’s get one person who thinks climate change is occurring or thinks that there’s a problem with formaldehyde and we’ll find somebody who doesn’t, and disagrees,” as if it’s an adversarial system in court and these are expert witnesses. But that’s not what happens in the science community. Yes, people challenge each other, but then you ask, “what’s the weight of the evidence.” It’s not a courtroom where you present alternatives in that way. That’s problematic and it gets disseminated very broadly on digital media.

Riley: In 2009 when President Obama took office, he called for comprehensive scientific integrity reform in federal departments and agencies. How is he doing?

Rosenberg: There is good policy in many agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — and this isn’t because I used to work at NOAA — did an outstanding job, as I think is noted in the report you mentioned earlier, in creating a scientific integrity policy. They enabled scientists to speak out.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House has said they stand behind scientific integrity policies. But the real challenge now is making sure that the implementation follows those policies. And there it’s a little harder to be quite so laudatory. I think they did a great job of putting the policies in place. We worked very intensively with many of the agencies to help provide guidance, since it was critically important in our scientific integrity program. But the implementation of those policies in some places, like USDA, FDA and others, has lagged. There are still concerns in Department of Interior and its many various departments. I think there’s an opportunity for improvement.

Riley: Last month, in a speech at an event marking the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama told scientists, engineers and doctors that his goal is to reach for a level of private and public research and development investment that we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. At the same time, the sequester is expected to take a significant toll on scientific research with numerous federal agencies and organizations now facing the possibility of huge cuts to their budgets. Some examples of that are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expecting $1.6 billion in cuts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) possibly shrinking by $283 million, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimating a $9.3 billion cut across the board in R&D this year. How concerned should we be about these cuts?

Rosenberg: We should be very concerned. I’m not sure that outside the science community it’s well known that the competition for NIH and NSF grants is really intense, meaning that there’s intense scrutiny of every grant proposal. If you add to that now a reduced pool of money, then those success rates become really shockingly low, like less than 10 percent, I believe. That means that many scientists will have difficulty continuing their programs. Some people would say, “Oh well, maybe they should just be funded by private industry or private funding.” That’s all well and good but it’s totally different from a basic research enterprise of an NSF or an NIH, where people are doing the basic, fundamental, underlying research, not to immediately produce a product, but because it helps our understanding of the world. So that’s one area that is frightening.

But we also need to remember the applied science agencies like NOAA, NASA and USGS and others that are doing the basic daily scientific work for the country, everything from weather forecasts, climate forecasts, monitoring of water tables and the research that goes along with those things, understanding weather systems and understanding hydrologic systems, understanding fisheries — the area that I worked in for many years. You start to cut that research, which is also taking a very large hit, and that means our understanding gets weaker as the challenges are only increasing. It’s not as if the issues of trying to maintain the health of the oceans is diminishing, we need that applied scientific research for climate impacts and a whole range of other things.

One of the great things about the U.S. science enterprise and why it was so powerful is because it was valued not just with dollars but in the way that scientists were allowed to operate with much less hierarchy and with much greater freedom than many other places. We’re going to lose that if we continue not only with the sequester but also with this scrutiny of grants, restrictions on travel and attacks on scientists.

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