Arthur Asuncion


Articles -- UCI Weighs In On Bush's Science (May 2004)

Last February, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report alleging that President Bush's administration had distorted various scientific findings in areas such as climate change, reproductive health, and Iraq's missile technology. Scientists at UCI, some of whom have interacted with the President, are also weighing in on Bush's science.

UCS, a scientific advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the environment, charges that the Bush administration had suppressed key scientific information, performed litmus tests on scientists, and filled science advisory boards with incompetent people, in order to protect Bush's science policies. Over sixty prominent scientists, including UCI's Nobel laureate Sherwood Rowland, have endorsed the UCS report.

Dr. Michael Prather, Professor and Fred Kavli Chair of Earth Systems Science, cautiously agrees with the findings of the UCS report.

“The UCS [report] is clearly a bold statement and it's to the point,” said Prather. “I think that it is probably right, but you have to be careful with the evidence.”

Dr. Francisco Ayala, Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, also expresses doubt about the administration's handling of science. Ayala was presented a National Medal of Science by Bush two years ago.

“What the Union of Concerned Scientists says seems consistent with the facts,” Ayala said. “I know that in some particular cases, some of the actions of the Bush administration seem contradictory to an effort to be objective about science.”

One of those cases was the recent dismissal of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and another member from Bush's Council on Bioethics. While Bush opposes therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research, Blackburn is supportive of the technologies.

“At face value, [Blackburn's dismissal] seems like a very non-objective and unscientific way of proceeding,” said Ayala.

The UCS report was primarily focused on climate change. Citing a 2003 EPA “Report on the Environment” that had the climate change section removed, UCS claims that the Bush administration deliberately tried to suppress evidence of global warming for political reasons.

“Since taking office, the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine the public's understanding of the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are making a discernable contribution to global warming,” states the UCS report.

While noting that unanimous agreement is impossible, Prather points out that scientists have come to a general consensus about the existence of global warming.

“Most of the scientists would agree that climate change is affected by humans,” said Prather.

Professor Jin-Yi Yu of Earth Systems Science also thinks that the existence of global warming has generally been accepted.

“In the past 50 years, we've seen that there is global warming,” said Yu.

However, Yu concedes that there is still some uncertainty about the extent of global warming and future climate change estimates, due to insufficient knowledge on the formation, distribution, and radioactive properties of clouds. According to Yu, clouds can potentially cause either positive or negative feedback. The type of feedback determines the extent of change in Earth's temperature.

“There is always uncertainty there, [and] it depends on interpretation,” Yu said. “We haven't really fully understood the feedback system in the climate.”

A NASA report published on March 15 in the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate suggests that some global warming estimates may be exaggerated. The report states that models that incorporate fixed relative humidity could be overestimating the effect of feedback.

“[The NASA report] could be right or could be wrong,” said Yu. “After satellites collect more information on clouds, the projection of future climate change will become more certain.”

However, UCS contends that the administration's mishandling of scientific information is a more important issue than Bush's actual science policies.

In 2001, Bush commissioned the National Academy of Science (NAS) to conduct research on climate change in order to evaluate the findings of the UN-wide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone led the NAS research effort.

However, UCS claims that Bush took little action in response to the NAS report and other environmental reports since these reports strongly attributed global warming to human activity.

“[The NAS] presented a report which has been, for all practical purposes, completely ignored,” said Ayala. “The picture that emerges is not a very complimentary one for the Bush administration as far as their objective use of scientific knowledge.”

Along with the administration's actions towards EPA reports, Bush's refusal to support the Kyoto treaty without immediately presenting an alternative plan is disturbing to Prather. Kyoto was an international agreement that aimed to reduce greenhouse emissions.

“What I did not like was when Bush did not support Kyoto,” said Prather. “He did not present an alternative.”

Prather does give Bush some credit for forcefully articulating the dangers of global warming in a Rose Garden speech three years ago. Prather is also pleased with the White House's support of the Climate Change Science Plan, a document that Prather reviewed.

“The fact that he is willing to push the Climate Change Science Plan is great,” said Prather. “The setup is very nice, and there is potential for it in the future.”

However, Prather says that the Climate Change Science Plan is not a valid substitute for the EPA “Report on the Environment.”

Another UCS allegation is that the administration has been stacking science advisory panels with incompetent people. In detailing the Health and Human Service's appointment of industry scientists to a lead poisoning prevention panel, the UCS report not only suggests that the appointed industry scientists are not as competent as other scientists but also alleges that the industry scientists have a conflict of interests.

Ayala thinks that industry scientists can be as competent as scientists in academia.

“The question is whether they are good scientists, not whether they are working for an industrial lab, or a national lab, or a university,” said Ayala. “Good scientists are good scientists, and if they see that they have a conflict of interests, they will recuse themselves -- if they are good scientists and [if] they have good morals.”

Some have viewed the UCS report, put out at an election year, to be politically-toned due to references to controversial topics like abortion, abstinence education, and Iraqi missile capabilities. Addressing the issue of whether scientists should get involved with politics, Ayala makes the distinction between politics at large and science policies.

“I think that science policy is something in which some scientists should get involved in, because they are the ones who have the technical information,” said Ayala.

According to Ayala, a problem in the United States is the media's inaccurate portrayal of science. Ayala believes that the media's coverage of unusual science stories has the effect of distorting science in people's mind.

“People in the United States are very poorly educated with respect to science,” Ayala said. “It is very shocking to think that, according to statistics, 50% of the people in the United States don't know that the earth goes around the sun, and more than 50% do not know that humans evolved from non-human ancestors, which is as well [of an] established point as the other.”

On April 2, Bush's top science advisor John Marburger came to the administration's defense and provided a rebuttal to the UCS report. Marburger flatly rejected accusations that the administration had been performing litmus-tests on scientists and that the administration had been ignoring global warming. Marburger also rebuffed claims that the EPA was not involved with White House science policy meetings.

"In this Administration, science strongly informs policy,” said Marburger, a lifelong Democrat.

UCS responded with a statement on the same day.

“We have great respect for Dr. Marburger, and we will, of course, examine his report carefully,” read the UCS statement. “We would suggest that Dr. Marburger set up a process for receiving and investigating serious, documented allegations of cases in which this policy [of maintaining complete scientific information] was not complied with, and for communicating the results to the officials involved and to the public.”