The Heat Is Online

Scientific Secrecy Seen Spreading Through Federal Government

Too often, mum's the word, groups charge

Feds suppress, alter key data, they say


Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 13, 2007


Washington -- The federal government suppresses or manipulates information about the environment, prescription drugs and public safety, making it increasingly hard for members of the public to learn about matters that could affect their lives.


That was the assessment Monday of former government officials, librarians, scientists and others at a session billed as "a national dialogue with government-openness experts."


Several speakers suggested the manipulation was politically motivated - a way for the Bush administration to downplay global climate change or appease groups opposed to controversial birth control.


Others at the session, part of the "Sunshine Week" of activities shedding light on government secrecy, did not ascribe motives. But they agreed that the public's right to know is frequently compromised.


A survey of nearly 2,000 scientists who work on federal issues found "an epidemic of interference" in doing their jobs researching air quality and other health issues, said Timothy Donaghy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Rick Piltz, founder of Climate Science Watch and a former whistleblower at the U.S. Climate Change Science Project, cited a recent study saying that polar bears are endangered because of disappearing sea ice. But the Bush administration, he said, insisted the study had nothing to do with global warming.

Jay Dyckman, of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said the administration's "first rule on global warming is, 'Don't talk about global warming.' "


This sends a message to scientists not to speak out about their research if it doesn't conform to policy, he said.


"If the cornerstone of a thriving democracy is an informed electorate, how are people supposed to make informed decisions" if they do not have access to valid information, Dyckman asked.


The White House disputes these assertions.


"This administration has one of the most transparent systems of science reporting in place," Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told The Plain Dealer. "Claims that we are manipulating science are just false."


Groups ranging from the American Library Association to the League of Women Voters sponsored the Sunshine Week session, held at the National Press Club. Speakers included Susan Wood, the former Food and Drug Administration official who quit in 2005 over the administration's delay on deciding whether to approve "Plan B," the emergency contraception drug. Science, she said, did not drive policy.


Dorothy Biggs, an Environmental Protection Agency librarian who retired last year, cited the EPA's decision to close three regional libraries - in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City. She said that it was budget-related but that the closings meant the loss of vast one-stop repositories of research material. In the case of Chicago, that included stores of material on the Great Lakes.


Despite their concerns, some speakers said they were optimistic. Among the reasons: Democrats are holding oversight hearings. And the Internet is making it possible for scientists, whistleblowers and bloggers to spread information that otherwise would be suppressed.