Marburger Defends Administration: Rebutting charges from top scientists
Newsday, March 28, 2004
WASHINGTON - John H. Marburger III, the White House science adviser, is on the hot seat.
Nearly 2 1/2 years after leaving the directorship of Brookhaven National Laboratory to take the policy job, Marburger finds himself defending the Bush administration against charges it has distorted and misused science.
Marburger said in an interview last week he is disappointed that more than 60 prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, recently signed an open letter calling for action to "restore scientific integrity" in federal policy making. Two of the laureates, physicists Val Fitch and Leon Lederman, did their prize-winning work at Brookhaven in the 1960s.
Fitch said he signed the letter because he feels "scientific input seems to have been scorned by this administration."
A separate report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., alleged a pattern by the Bush administration of stacking scientific advisory groups to advance its political agenda, muzzling government scientists and tampering with the analysis of scientific data on key issues such as climate change.
Marburger called the report a "conspiracy theory" that makes generalizations based on disconnected incidents he says were not fully investigated by the authors. Marburger said his main concern is "the sweeping nature of the accusation, that there is a systematic and deliberate effort to distort science for policy purposes. That's not the case. That's simply not true."
Marburger and his staff have been preparing a detailed response to the report. He also has sent letters to those who signed the protest. "I'm just beginning to engage them," he said. Marburger remains upbeat, despite the recent flap. "I'm glad I'm here," he said. "I'm getting a lot of personal satisfaction" working on issues such as space policy, globalization of the technical work force and budget priorities for science.
But it is clear he has a challenge ahead, given the range of concerns cited by some who signed the protest letter.
Kevin Trenberth, an atmospheric scientist at the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., mentioned a personal example in an interview. In December, he and Thomas Karl, a climate specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a paper in the journal Science arguing modern climate change is dominated by human influences. They included a disclaimer that the paper "does not reflect government policy."
Trenberth said Karl was told not to talk to the media and calls were referred to meteorologist James Mahoney, NOAA deputy administrator and Karl's boss. Mahoney took issue with Karl and Trenberth's conclusion that human activities, including industrial emissions, are large enough to exceed natural factors driving climate variability.
Karl said that because of a snafu in alerting higher ups in the agency about the paper, Mahoney was caught off guard by the publication of it and asked to handle phone calls. "I hate to second-guess people's motivations," Karl said. "He felt he needed to step in." Karl said he did not feel muzzled and did talk to several media outlets. An NOAA spokesman said Mahoney, who was hospitalized for surgery last week, was unavailable for comment. Karl said steps are being taken to ensure top officials learn of papers on politically sensitive topics in advance.
But Trenberth called the episode "unconscionable."
Marburger, who said he was unaware of the incident, said his biggest frustration has been "the tremendous lack of understanding" about the administration's climate policy. He said President George W. Bush has acknowledged that greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of human activities and contribute to climate change.
Bridging a gap
Several signers of the letter applauded Marburger's efforts to bridge the gap between the Bush administration and critics in the science community. "I haven't anything but the highest regard for Jack Marburger," said Neal Lane, a Rice University physicist and a former science adviser to President Bill Clinton. Regarding the various incidents cited in the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Lane said, "I don't believe they are all part of plan or directed effort out of the White House." But he said the pattern of events is disturbing.
Marburger disagrees and says he has seen a responsible attitude toward science in his dealings with agency heads and administration officials. "Are there some people that did dumb things, or delays and problems of miscommunications? Yes, that happens all the time," Marburger said. But as to charges of political interference in federal science activities, he said, "I don't see it."
Marburger is no stranger to controversy. After serving as president of Stony Brook University, one of his first tasks as director at Brookhaven Lab was to soothe community anger with the lab's past environmental practices.
He defended the Department of Agriculture's practice, cited in the Union of Concerned Scientists report, of keeping a list of "sensitive issues" requiring agency scientists to seek prior approval before publishing research or speaking publicly on more than two dozen issues. Marburger said the list has been around for two decades.
The Union of Concerned Scientists report also mentioned the case of James Zahn, a former agriculture department researcher who discovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the air around hog farms. Zahn said his superiors, after some initial encouragement, had barred him from presenting his research at scientific conferences and public meetings.
"I've looked at that incident," Marburger said. Zahn's job was to study odors from hog farms, he said. Zahn was denied permission five times to talk about the health implications of his data "because he had no data or expertise with respect to public health," Marburger said. Zahn, who now works for a chemical company, said his findings had potential health consequences and should be aired.
William Happer, a Princeton University physicist who was director of energy research at the Department of Energy from 1991 to 1993, said he regards the scientists' protest letter, which he did not sign, as "silly." He said he is more concerned about what he perceives as Bush's downgrading of the science adviser's office. Marburger does not carry the title "assistant to the president" as some of his predecessors did. But Marburger said he has no trouble getting his views to the president and has ready access to White House chief of staff Andrew Card.
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