The Politics of Science

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Thursday, February 9, 2006

IT IS A RARE thing for the biography of a 24-year-old NASA spokesman to attract the attention of the national media. But that is what happened this week when George C. Deutsch tendered his resignation. Mr. Deutsch had, it emerged, lied about his (nonexistent) undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University. Far more important, several New York Times articles over the past week or so have exposed Mr. Deutsch as one of several White House-appointed public affairs officers at the agency who tried to prevent senior NASA career scientists from speaking and writing freely, especially when their views on the realities of climate change differed from those of the White House.

Mr. Deutsch prevented reporters from interviewing James E. Hansen, the leading climate scientist at NASA, telling colleagues he was doing so because his job was to "make the president look good." Mr. Deutsch also instructed another NASA scientist to add the word "theory" after every written mention of the Big Bang, on the grounds that the accepted scientific explanation of the origins of the universe "is an opinion" and that NASA should not discount the possibility of "intelligent design by a creator."

The spectacle of a young political appointee with no college degree exerting crude political control over senior government scientists and civil servants with many decades of experience is deeply disturbing. More disturbing is the fact that Mr. Deutsch's attempts to manipulate science and scientists, although unusually blatant, were not unique. Just before Christmas, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued "talking points" to local environmental agencies. These suggestions were intended to help their spokesmen play down an Associated Press story that -- using the EPA's own data -- showed that impoverished neighborhoods had higher levels of air pollution.

At the Food and Drug Administration, the director of the Office of Women's Health recently resigned because she believed that the administration was twisting science to stall approval of over-the-counter emergency contraception. Off the record -- because they fear losing their jobs -- some scientists at the Department of Health and Human Services say that Bush administration public affairs officers screen their appearances and utterances more carefully than anyone ever did. Scientists at places such as the Agriculture Department, not a part of the government known for its publicity hounds, have made the same claim.

In every administration there will be spokesmen and public affairs officers who try to spin the news to make the president look good. But this administration is trying to spin scientific data and muzzle scientists toward that end. NASA's Mr. Hansen was right when he told the Times that Mr. Deutsch was only a bit player. "The problem is much broader and much deeper and it goes across agencies," he said. We agree.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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