The Bush assault on expertise

Bush confirmed yesterday that he doesn’t read the newspaper. A day after the New York Times had a front-page story which mentioned the likelihood of $4 gas in the first paragraph, this exchange occurred in his press conference:

Q: What’s your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing –

MR. BUSH: Wait, what did you just say? You’re predicting $4 a gallon gasoline?

Q: A number of analysts are predicting –

MR. BUSH: Oh, yeah?

Q: — $4 a gallon gasoline this spring when they reformulate.

MR. BUSH: That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that.

Okay, it’s no surprise that Bush is ignorant and out of touch. Unfortunately, ignorance is not just an incidental tragedy of his administration — it seems to be considered a virtue. We learned in today’s LA Times that the head of an expert scientific panel was dismissed for publicly stating her belief that a toxic chemical is dangerous to citizens:

Under pressure from the chemical industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed an outspoken scientist who chaired a federal panel responsible for helping the agency determine the dangers of a flame retardant widely used in electronic equipment.

Toxicologist Deborah Rice was appointed chair of an EPA scientific panel reviewing the chemical a year ago. Federal records show she was removed from the panel in August after the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for chemical manufacturers, complained to a top-ranking EPA official that she was biased.

How is she biased? Well, being an expert in this subject and a scientist employed by the state of Maine, she testified about the dangers of the chemical to the Maine Legislature, which was considering a ban. She has also spoken to the press about the toxicity of the compound. The EPA apparently believes that someone who actually knows something about a subject, and tries to educate the public and the government about what they know, is showing a conflict of interest — or at least the “perception” of a “potential” conflict of interest — that disqualifies them from sitting on a panel whose job it is to study the subject:

EPA officials removed Rice because of what they called “the perception of a potential conflict of interest.” Under the agency’s handbook for advisory committees, scientific peer reviewers should not “have a conflict of interest” or “appear to lack impartiality.” EPA officials were not available for comment Thursday.

Environmentalists accuse the EPA of a “dangerous double standard,” because under the Bush administration, many pro-industry experts have served on the agency’s scientific panels.

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, reviewed seven EPA panels created last year and found 17 panelists who were employed or funded by the chemical industry or had made public statements that the chemicals they were reviewing were safe. In one example, an Exxon Mobil Corp. employee served on an EPA expert panel responsible for deciding whether ethylene oxide, a chemical manufactured by Exxon Mobil, is a carcinogen.

Welcome to the Bush alternative reality. Being a government scientist who warns the public about a toxic chemical (or, say, global warming) presents a conflict of interest, even though there is no suggestion that she will benefit personally from coming down on a particular side of the issue. In fact, before going to work for the Maine state government, she worked at the EPA during the Bush presidency and was praised in 2004 for the high quality of her research. Meanwhile, scientists who are employed or funded by the chemical industry present no conflict of interest.

Am I surprised? No. But I worry that as a lot of attention is paid, appropriately, to the dastardly deeds of political appointees, like EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson ignoring the strong warnings of his staff and blocking California’s efforts to set more stringent emissions standards than the Federal standards, there may not be enough focus on the evisceration of expertise at lower levels, where career professionals are trying to do apolitical scientific work.

After all, the political appointees will be gone in January 2009 (knock on virtual wood), and can be replaced with people who aren’t partisan hacks, but lower-level scientists who are being driven out of government either voluntarily or involuntarily will still be gone, and rebuilding that infrastructure of professionalism and expertise is not as quick and simple as just appointing a new director or administrator. Hopefully most government scientists are lying low and waiting out Bush’s term, rather than fleeing or getting fired, but it would be understandable if large numbers of them were fleeing for jobs in the private or academic sector.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that agencies like the EPA and NASA are doing to scientists what the Justice Department did to nonpartisan career lawyers — either firing them, or overruling them for such transparently political reasons that they are resigning. That kind of damage probably takes decades to undo. It could almost be amusing to have a President who doesn’t glance at the front page of the New York Times every day, as long as that’s where the ignorance ended. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to see expertise and professionalism in government as a threat to their goals, not an asset, so the ignorance shown at the very top is treated as a model for all government employees to emulate.

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3 responses to “The Bush assault on expertise

  1. “virtual wood”–a few more Bush administrations and that’ll be the only kind we have left…

  2. you give forever...

    Well said.

  3. Pingback: Paul Krugman’s latest effort to undermine his own credibility « This Be The Blog

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