BROOKE GLADSTONE: The confirmation of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to head the EPA has been blocked in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, because its Democratic members say they'll boycott the vote. A new vote is slated for next week, but could be stalled again, depending on how long the Democrats hold out. Why won't they vote? The confirmation is being held hostage by the senators until they can wring some facts from the White House. First off, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who wants to know more about the EPA's handling of the clean-up of lower Manhattan after 9/11. She wants to know more, because a report released last August by the EPA's inspector general says the White House instructed EPA officials to edit cautionary statements out of their press releases and to put more reassuring statements in. It's just one recent indication of what many science researchers and reporters see as an alarming tendency by this White House to channel science fact through a political filter. For instance, a recent study by the House Committee on Government Reform, requested by California Democrat Henry Waxman, charges the Bush administration with playing up the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs and playing down the effectiveness of condoms. It says the White House squelched information related to global warming, as well as data that suggests using antibiotics in hog farming may weaken the effectiveness of such drugs in humans. Paula Park is a senior editor at The Scientist, and she says the Waxman report is certainly partisan, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. She is familiar with the issue of hog farming and antibiotic resistance...
PAULA PARK: ...and that I think is a very serious charge. There's been some questions as to whether antibiotics used in other livestock as well has led to resistance among diseases that also affect humans, like pneumonia and tuberculosis and some venereal diseases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There have been a couple of charges, general charges, that have been leveled at the Bush administration by the scientific community. One is that it manufactures certainty, and another that it manufactures uncertainty. For instance, in the area of condoms to protect against transmission of STDs and HIV, the government, which supports abstinence, has introduced a note of doubt into the ability of condoms to offer sufficient protection, and this has people at the Centers for Disease Control up in arms.
PAULA PARK: Certainly, the administration has what some may argue presented an over-blown case of the uncertainty of condoms. Obviously condoms have proven to be the best possible way of not getting STD through sexual transmission. And what needs to be put out in the public is, you know, valid statistical comparisons between methods of preventing pregnancy and STD, and obviously, AIDS, so that people could see --"Well, okay, there may be an infinitesimal chance with condoms that I might get AIDS, but compare that with everything else; I'm going to go with condoms." That's what should be put out in the public. The, the Bush administration's policy is criticized because it's almost as if the government wants to tell people what they should do rather than show them information and let them make their own decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So do you feel that, in the cases we've mentioned, the current administration is interfering with science and, and misleading the public as the Waxman report suggests, and, and if it is, is it behaving any differently than any other administration?
PAULA PARK: Yes, I do believe that the administration is managing the information that comes out about science to further its own aims. That is not unusual for administrations to do. The difference with the Bush administration is, with other administrations it has been in their favor to let more information out about science; therefore, if the information was, that was publicized was in some way inaccurate or unbalanced, then the scientists could read it, evaluate it, and comment on it. However, the Bush administration's tendency is to keep back information, to do things behind the scene, so that it's very difficult for scientists to assess its validity. Even if the Bush policymakers were correct, nobody can really make that judgment, because they don't have the evidence that the Bush administration is allegedly using.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One of the behind the scenes actions of the Bush administration cited in the Waxman report is the manipulation of scientific advisory committees, specifically the appointment of unqualified people with industry ties or ideological agendas. That's what most worries Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science magazine.
DONALD KENNEDY: I think that the use of political loyalty tests in making appointments has reached almost epidemic proportions, and that concerns me a lot. If you have people with announced political convictions before the fact, I think it's very difficult for the public to trust the judgments they make as to their objectivity. I also think it risks making bad policies. If you have a regulatory agency like the Environmental Protection Agency, you want to be sure that the advice that they get is based on what's the best science, not what's the science that agrees with the conclusion that this administration would like to reach on policy grounds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What will be the early warning signs that this kind of political manipulation of advisory committees is actually having an effect on the quality of information that goes out to the public?
DONALD KENNEDY: Well I think it ought to be possible to monitor information that's given in various science agency web sites and see whether there are changes. That's probably the best early warning signal that you can get. There's a contrast between what the previous administration said in the CDC web site and what this administration changed it to. That's one indication, it seems to me, that's absolutely objective about how much scientific objectivity has been threatened in a new administration. The Center for Disease Control web site that spoke to the use of condoms, that spoke to the abortion issue, was quite radically revised during the Bush administration from a previous set of information that, for example, clearly indicated that abortion history doesn't have anything to do with breast cancer liability. the clinical evidence on that is very good. The new web site makes it much less clear that abortion history is unrelated to cancer liability. They simply left it so fuzzy that a reasonable reader would conclude that there was a relationship. And so I think the only cure for this is to exert some serious oversight of the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the likelihood of that happening?
DONALD KENNEDY:Well, you know, Congress once had an Office of Technology Assessment. It led a very useful life until its dis-establishment some years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in the meantime what's the public to do?
DONALD KENNEDY:Keep looking and watching. I think that over time, if this proves to be a chronic problem with the Bush administration, as I fear it may be, then more evidence will accumulate; there will be more coverage in the mainstream media; and people will start asking questions of their congressmen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Of course, it behooves the public to ask questions and to embrace the caveat emptor school of whatever they read in the press, but I know that you've expressed concern over various polls that suggest the public really has some wildly mistaken scientific views.
DONALD KENNEDY: Well I've been concerned with a poll quoted, I think, by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times recently that said that although 80 percent of the American people believe in the Virgin birth, only 26 percent believe in evolution. I'm not going to go quarrel with anybody about their religious beliefs, but I think it's a little surprising that only a quarter of our citizens believe in the theory of evolution. Strikes me as extraordinary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this is a lot bigger problem than merely the manipulation of scientific advisory committees.
DONALD KENNEDY: I think the problem ultimately has to be resolved through improving the quality of science education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thanks a lot.
DONALD KENNEDY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Donald Kennedy is editor in chief of the journal Science. [MUSIC]