Bush Wins 2007 Jefferson Muzzle Award, First Place For Second Year

Who says George Bush is a total loser? For the second year in a row, Bush came in first place in the Muzzle Awards from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. This year’s award:

For its unprecedented efforts of discouraging, changing, and sometimes censoring the reports and studies of government scientists in order to make them more supportive of political policies, a 2007 Jefferson Muzzle goes to… the Bush Administration.

Tension between government policy and scientific research is nothing new. Perhaps the most famous example is the conviction of John Scopes in 1925 for violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Many political debates have been fueled by the existence of scientific research supporting different sides of an argument. Yet, scientific research itself is predicated on dispassionate analysis of verifiable and replicable results. When scientific findings are altered for any reason other than empirical accuracy, suspicion is raised. Unfortunately, under the Bush administration examples of political interference in science no longer appear to be to isolated incidents but “a system-wide epidemic,” says Dr. Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program.

  • In testimony before the House Government Reform Committee in March 2007, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the first scientists to raise concerns about climate change in the early 1980’s, stated “interference with communications of science to the public has been greater during the current administration than at any time during my career.” Hansen recounted a 2005 incident in which a 24-year-old NASA public affairs official told him he could not take part in a National Public Radio interview on global warming. The press officer, who also testified at the hearing, stated he was “relaying” the orders of senior NASA public affairs officials in not allowing Hansen to participate in the interview.
  • The House Government Reform Committee also heard testimony from Phillip Cooney, former chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney’s appearance was the first time he publicly answered questions about some 181 changes he made to three government climate reports. Cooney acknowledged that some of the changes were made “to align these communications with the administration’s stated policy” on climate change, but he defended many of the changes claiming they were made to reflect the uncertainties of climate change science. Cooney’s defense is questionable, however, given his lack of qualifications to make judgments regarding the conclusions of scientific research. Before working at the White House, Cooney was an oil industry lobbyist. He left the White House in 2005 to work for Exxon Mobil.
  • In September 2006, the science journal Nature reported on the comments of scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) who claimed political appointees suppressed a NOAA fact sheet suggesting global warming was contributing to increased hurricane activity.
  • A 2006 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability project included a survey of hundreds of federal scientists at seven federal agencies and dozens of in-depth interviews that revealed 73 percent of respondents perceived inappropriate interference with climate science research over the past five years.

Although interference in communicating global warming/climate change research has been the most widely reported, the speech and research outcomes of government scientists in other fields have also been threatened. According to Political Science: A Report on Science & Censorship (pdf), produced by The Knowledge Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, such incidents have also occurred at numerous other federal departments and agencies, including the Department of the Interior (endangered species/ conservation) and the Food and Drug Administration (contraceptive drugs). Also cited is an EPA inspector general report of February 2005 that concluded agency scientists had been pressured to change their scientific findings about risks from mercury. The former director of EPA’s Air Enforcement division reportedly complained “The new mercury rules were hatched at the White House; the Environmental Protection Agency’s experts were simply not consulted at all.”

These are but a few of the reported incidents of political interference in the communication of scientific research. Indeed, scores of reported incidents have been complied by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science.

The awarding of this Muzzle should not be interpreted as supporting one side or the other in any scientific debate. Nor should it be seen to question the Bush Administration’s right to insist that government employed scientists acknowledge when their public statements do not represent the official positions of the government. Yet, as aptly stated by the National Coalition Against Censorship in Political Science, “Government need not embrace the available science, but it may not silence it.” Over the course of the past five years, government scientists have felt an unprecedented degree of political interference in communicating their research to the public thereby making the Bush Administration a deserving recipient of a 2007 Jefferson Muzzle.

Last year George Bush won “for unilaterally authorizing warrantless NSA wiretapping of the conversations of presumably innocent U.S. citizens.”

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Blue says:

    Bush deserved to win because he’s the unwitting head of the muzzle snake, but Fox News deserved an honorable mention.

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