The Bush Administration was often accused of waging a “war on science” because of various instances in which government officials sought to alter, spin, suppress, or manipulate scientific inquiries or findings for political purposes. Some of the charges were exaggeraged, but some were real enough. My favorite was the effort by a political hack at NASA to muzzle James Hansen and edit the discussion of the “Big Bang” on the agency’s website.
Per the “war on science” meme, science politicization was predominantly (if not exclusively) a conservative or Republican enterprise. So a “pro-science,” Democratic Administration would change things, right? Not really. As the Los Angeles Times reports, allegations of science politicization persist. “We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration,” says Jeffrey Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. According to the Times:
interviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:
In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.
In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.
In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.
In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.
The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.
And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.
This should not surprise. The “GOP War on Science” argument was always overstated and sought a partisan explanation for a phenomenon generated by broader institutional pressures and incentives. There were also early signs that the Obama Administration would replace science politicization of the Right with that of the Left. Congress has also played along.
That science politicization has continued under President Obama doesn’t exonerate Republicans. They’ve done their share, including some Republicans’ indulgence of anti-evolution nonsense. But it helps show (as I argued here) that the “war on science” is a political and institutional problem, rather than a partisan one.