By Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — When he ran for president, Barack Obama attacked the George W. Bush administration for putting political concerns ahead of science on such issues as climate change and public health. And during his first weeks in the White House, Obama ordered his advisers to develop rules to “guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.”
Many government scientists hailed the president’s pronouncement. But a year and a half later, no such rules have been issued. Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out.
“We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration,” said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.
White House officials, however, said they remained committed to protecting science from interference and that proposed guidelines would be forwarded to Obama in the near future.
But interviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they fear retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:
In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.
In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal lands.
In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.
The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science is what some government and outside environmental experts said was the decision to fight the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.
And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it has received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.
“Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently,” said Francesca Grifo, the organization’s director of scientific integrity.
For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency.
Most of the examples provided by Ruch, Grifo and others come from scientists who insist on anonymity, making it difficult for agencies to respond specifically to the complaints. Officials at those agencies maintain that scientists are allowed and encouraged to speak out if they believe a policy is at odds with their findings.
The director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, said last month that the president effectively set policy in his March 2009 memorandum calling for administration-wide scientific integrity standards.
“There should not be any doubt that these principles have been in effect — that is, binding on all executive departments and agencies,” Holdren said, and that “augmentation of these principles” will be coming soon.
Still, Grifo said, the volume of complaints indicates a real problem and makes it “vital” that the Obama administration issue additional instructions. While overall respect for science may have improved under Obama, several scientists said they were still subject to interference.
In the Pacific Northwest, Ruch said, his organization has heard in the past 16 months from multiple federal fisheries biologists who report that they are under pressure not to overstate the impact of dams on wild salmon.
Most critics said they were disappointed that protection of science and scientists did not become more of a priority after the election.
Eric Glitzenstein, a Washington attorney who has filed suit to block projects approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, said he had expected the culture to change under Obama.
“The administration’s been in long enough that if that was going to happen, we should have seen it by now,” he said. “We simply haven’t.”