During the marathon, he was joined (relieved) by more than 40 senators, who made really long statements in the form of questions (as this filibuster guide explains, senators interrupting can say just about anything, as long as what they say is in the form of a question). And in these statements/questions, numerous senators spoke out in favor of lifting the research ban.
The senators’ statements came just a day after the American Medical Association called gun violence “a public health crisis,” resolving to actively lobby Congress to allow research to resume.
Here are the senators that want to bring back gun-related research and these are their words.
Senator Edward Markey (MA): I ask another question: Wouldn’t it be easier to develop effective solutions to gun violence in America if our Nation’s top researchers could actually do research on gun violence? We are facing an epidemic of gun violence. More than 33,000 people are dying in our country each year from gun violence. It is a public health emergency, and we must treat it that way. So shouldn’t we ask ourselves: Why is it happening and what can we do to stop it? When disease and illness bring widespread death, doctors, scientists, and public health researchers study the causes so that they can find solutions, and the Federal Government invests in those efforts. For diabetes, which kills almost 76,000 people in the United States each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receive $170 million. For planning and preparedness against the flu, which leads to 57,000 deaths each year, the CDC’s budget is more than $187 million. For asthma, 3,600 people, the CDC receives $29 million. For gun violence, which kills more than 33,000 Americans a year, the CDC’s budget is zero dollars—yes, zero dollars. That is because, beginning more than 20 years ago, an appropriations rider has prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from advocating or promoting gun control. Many interpreted this provision as a ban, and it has chilled any research into the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it. But in 2013, President Obama directed the CDC to conduct critical public health research, and the principal congressional author of the rider, former Republican Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas, has now disavowed it, recognizing it was a mistake and calling for Federal gun violence prevention to move forward… Why can’t we find a way to at least fund the research on the causes of gun violence? Why can’t we find a way of just putting $10 million a year into that research? Why can’t we do that?
Senator Murphy (CT): Unfortunately, science has become politicized, and Senator Markey is on the frontlines of trying to address climate change. But there is no reason this Congress should be deciding what researchers at the CDC pursue by means of lines of inquiry and what they do not pursue. That should be left up to scientists. That should be left up to people who are professionals in the field of deciding what is worthy of research and what is not. We are politicians. I don’t cower from that term. I am proud of the fact that I and we have chosen to try to make this country better through the political process. But we aren’t scientists. We don’t have medical backgrounds. When we get into the field of deciding what is worthy of research and what is not, bad things happen routinely, whether it is on the question of climate change or on the question of gun violence research.
Senator Ron Wyden (OR): The Senator from Connecticut and I have also been strong advocates of beefing up the research into gun violence. There has been a prohibition on doing that. Say that one to yourself—a prohibition on doing research into gun violence. It just defies common sense. It makes no sense at all to block the Centers for Disease Control from gathering information that can help our communities and our families be safe.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY): Let’s lift our irrational hold on the CDC and allow them to actually study the issue of gun deaths the way we are allowed to study any other cause of death in this country. The American people support this as well.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT): [referring to letter from a constituent] These proposals are really relatively modest, and so are the others that this young person has advocated that we adopt—‘‘obvious and basic safeguards,’’ to quote him or her, ‘‘to gun ownership such as universal background checks, CDC research into gun violence… to name a few.’’ All of them should be adopted.
Senator Richard Durbin (IL): [reading statement from American Medical Association] The AMA, which lobbies on behalf of doctors, said on Tuesday it will press Congress to overturn 20-year-old legislation that blocks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on gun violence …”Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries.’’ Congress placed restrictions on CDC funding of gun research into the federal budget in 1996 at the urging of gun rights supporters who claimed the agency was biased toward gun control.
Senator Tim Kaine (VA): Let’s talk about that. Congress has…put a number of restrictions in place to stop research into causes of gun violence, to stop the ability to trace weapons in gun violence. These are not only not doing the right thing but doing the wrong thing in the sense of the thing that seems completely contrary to the wishes of the constituents who send us here to represent them.
This is an absurd policy that needs to be changed. Earlier this year, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS joined more than 140 science, public health, medical, and academic organizations urging Congress to lift the restrictions on gun violence research. Science can play a critical role in informing policymakers on how best to address gun violence. It’s time to #EndTheBan.]]>
Earlier this week, Congress sent the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 to the president’s desk to sign into law. The legislation marks an important step forward toward increasing access to government information.
Here are three things that the new law will do.
Over the last several months, Republicans and Democrats rolled up their sleeves and worked together to strengthen our landmark open records law. They consistently met with the open government community, heard our concerns, and worked to find a path forward to finalize comprehensive reform. In January, the House passed a FOIA bill that would take important steps to increase transparency. A few months later, the Senate unanimously passed its version of FOIA reform during Sunshine Week that would do the same.
While the House and Senate versions of FOIA reform had some differences, both bills aimed to solidify open government reforms that President Obama and then Attorney General Holder committed to during the first few months of the administration, with the purpose being to establish a more effective and efficient FOIA process. In an era of rare collaboration across party lines, there was strong bipartisan support for FOIA reform in both chambers.
No doubt, there were some hiccups along the way, including the Obama administration’s effort to “scuttle” FOIA reform (ironically discovered through a FOIA request), but it is a real testament to congressional leaders, including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), and their staffs, to see this reform all the way through.
As a result of their hard work and the continued pressure that the transparency community (including UCS) put on Congress and the White House, the House passed the Senate’s version of FOIA reform on Monday without any opposition.
The improvements mentioned above, along with other fixes, are a huge victory for everyone, though we didn’t get everything we wanted. As my colleague wrote back in March, “FOIA always will be a work in progress” and UCS will continue to advocate for policies that increase the public’s access to information. Sunshine in government benefits everyone and allows us to hold Washington accountable, whether it be to help monitor agency implementation of scientific integrity and media policies, or to ensure that the work of federal scientists isn’t being undermined or politicized.
As with any legislation, it’s one thing to sign it into law, and another to make sure it’s implemented. Under the new law, federal agencies will need to review and publish updated guidelines for disclosure. UCS and our open government partners will be monitoring agencies to ensure that they follow through quickly, clearly, and consistently in carrying forward the new requirements for transparency. We will continue our work to hold this administration and future administrations accountable to the promise of greater transparency and public access.
As my colleagues and I look forward to the president’s signing of this law, let’s take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have yet to go when it comes to open government. Be sure to follow the conversation with me on Twitter by using the hashtags #50DaysOfFOIA and #FixFOIABy50, and let’s celebrate a little extra on July 4th for 50 more years of transparency.]]>
Graham Readfearn reports for the Guardian on the unbelievably tragic 93% of the Great Barrier Reef impacted by coral bleaching.
Pacific Standard reports on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to protect endangered species, and mentions some of our suggestions for improving the process: putting “nerdy little angels on FWS’s burdened bureaucratic shoulder” (their most excellent words).
Slate details an example of politics getting in the way of telling a scientific story: the CDC’s failure to identify the troubling origin of the cholera epidemic that raged in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. NPR has more on who’s being sued as a result.
My colleague Pallavi Phartiyal connects the dots between attacks on researchers who use fetal tissue and other scientists whose work is dragged into political fights.
The American Physical Society did a study on the climate for LGBT physicists and found that there is a lot of work to be done to make physics more welcoming. More on that soon in a longer post.
The American Geophysical Union couldn’t find any evidence that Exxon Mobil is currently supporting climate change misinformation, so they decided to keep taking money from the company. They must not have looked very hard. In related news, the American Petroleum Institute warned the oil industry about climate change…in 1968.
And then Berkeley Breathed, who returned this year to create the great strip Bloom County again, drew this moving tribute to Prince. Art, and creative gender expression, lives on.]]>
Scientists have known for decades about the health effects of silica dust exposure, including silicosis, an irreversible and debilitating lung disease that can cause respiratory failure among other problems. Silica is widely used in the construction, food, pharmaceutical, and many other industries, and silicosis occurs when workers inhale the respirable crystalline silica dust that can get into the air.
Remarkably, none of this is new science. Back in the 1930s, the construction industry was conducting studies on exposure of workers to silica dust and the incidence of silicosis. In an infamous 1931 Gauley Bridge tunnel incident, hundreds of workers died of silicosis and it all could have been avoided if a “wet drilling” technique was used to keep the dust down. But doing so slowed the process, so the construction company only used it when inspectors were present.
Despite this overwhelming evidence of harm AND knowledge of how to prevent it, why weren’t such common-sense protections put in place sooner?
In 2013, my colleague Michael Halpern wrote that it could be years before the silica rule would be in place. He was right. He knew that delay by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would slow progress on the rule, while workers continued to be needlessly exposed to silica dust and risk developing silicosis and other lung ailments.
In addition to this regulatory delay by OMB, we cannot overlook the role that industry has played in obstructing scientific understanding of the harms of silica and development of protections.
The chemical industry has long fought the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on regulation of silica. In his comprehensive book Doubt is Their Product, epidemiologist and OSHA head David Michaels observed, “In virtually every instance in which a federal regulatory agency proposes protecting the public’s health by reducing the allowable exposure to a toxic product, the regulated industry hires scientists to dispute the science on which the proposal is based.”
Indeed, this was the case with silica. The chemical industry engaged on a decades-long fight to cast doubt on the health effects linked to silica exposure. While thousands of exposed workers developed silicosis and died, the industry hired firms to run counter analyses to suggest no link between silica exposure and silicosis.
In 2013, OSHA proposed to tighten the silica standard. Several industry players, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly opposed the proposal, citing financial impacts and technical challenges and questioning the science on which the proposal was based.
In response to the proposed rule, the American Chemistry Council testified in a hearing in 2014, challenging the scientific basis for the rule. Despite longstanding and numerous studies demonstrating the public health dangers of silica, the trade group inexplicably asserted that the strong scientific evidence was “not trustworthy” and “not ready for prime time”. The Crystalline Panel division of the ACC released a statement calling itself “committed to the prevention of adverse health effects” resulting from respirable silica dust, despite also noting that the panel does “not believe there is a need for a new crystalline silica standard”.
The influence of industry in the process made such an impact that OSHA took an unprecedented step: in a move the first of its kind, the agency asked anyone submitting public comments on the silica rule to disclose financial ties and any conflicts of interest, a great step toward greater transparency around who is influencing a rulemaking process.
With a new rule finally in place, OSHA and others who fought the good fight to get this rule passed should take a bow and celebrate. This was a hard battle but they’ve won. Now countless workers will be protected from risking sickness and death from needless exposure to silica dust.
Unfortunately, proponents may not have time to relax. Members of Congress at today’s hearing were questioning the science that the rule is based on. Despite decades’ worth of science, politics continue. But for now, the science finally prevails.]]>
The 2011 version of the USDA scientific integrity policy had some shortcomings. Namely, the policy failed to address many of the guidelines put forth in the December 2010 scientific integrity directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
It failed to include two key tenets of scientific free speech: It didn’t grant scientists the “right of last review” on materials publicly released in their name or that significantly relied on their work. And it didn’t provide a “personal views exception”, which would allow scientists to express their personal views on a topic (including views on policy), provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency. (For more on why scientists need personal views exceptions in government agency policies, see my previous blog here.)
Also of concern, the policy didn’t contain many specifics about who is responsible and how the stated policies would be implemented. Importantly, the details of this policy didn’t matter much in any event, since the policy expired on August 5, 2012, one year after its issuance.
The 2013 update to the USDA scientific integrity policy makes improvements. First off, it removes any time limitation for its relevance. It also adds significantly more detail about who is responsible for carrying out which aspects of the policy. The new policy creates a USDA Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer and requires each agency within the USDA to appoint an agency level scientific integrity officer. These are important efforts for creating the structure and mechanisms to carry out the principles of the policy.
The policy also adds a few new provisions, including one protecting whistleblowers. The policy states that the Department policy is to:
Protect those who uncover and report allegations of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity, as well as those accused of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity in the absence of a finding of misconduct, from prohibited personnel practices (as defined in 5 U.S.C. 2302(b));
It is great to see the USDA add this provision to protect not only those who report scientific integrity breaches but also those accused, if no misconduct is found. This is important as we know that scientific integrity cases are often complicated and some may be wrongly accused.
Other new provisions to the USDA policy were less positive. A new provision now states that the department policy is to (emphasis mine):
(2) Ensure that scientists may communicate their findings without political interference or inappropriate influence, while at the same time complying with USDA policies and procedures for planning and conducting scientific activities, reporting scientific findings, and reviewing and releasing scientific products. Such communications include research on policy-related issues when appropriate to the role of the agency and scientist; however, the scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently. Communications on such matters should remain within the bounds of their scientific findings. Such scientific and technical communications for non-USDA media (e.g., manuscripts and presentations for scientific journals, workshops, conferences, and symposia) should follow agency technical review procedures and do not generally require review above the agency level.
It is good to see the USDA explicitly prohibit “political interference and inappropriate influence” over scientists’ communication of their work, as we know these are often the source of scientific integrity problems.
The second bolded area raises questions about USDA scientists’ ability to express their personal views. The policy appears to prohibit scientists from speaking on anything outside of their scientific findings, regardless of whether they clarify if they are speaking in their personal capacity. Instead of including such restrictive language, the USDA could have allowed scientists to express personal views with a disclaimer that they are not speaking on behalf of their agency.
Indeed, other federal agencies have effectively dealt with this issue within their scientific integrity policies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, clearly articulates scientists’ right to express their personal views in its policy. The NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy states:
NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints, for example about policy or management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions, but in doing so they must make clear that they are presenting their individual opinions- not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA.
So how is this new USDA policy working now that it has been in effect for a few years? We know from past UCS work that policies don’t always match practices. Agencies can have great agency culture that protects scientists without relying on a policy. And on the other hand, agencies can have wonderful policies in place that simply aren’t implemented. The only way to know is to hear from scientists inside the agency.
In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey of federal scientists within its Science Network. Though not comprehensive in nature, the survey yielded some interesting anecdotes suggesting that USDA scientific integrity and communications policies may not be living up to their intentions.
“The policies are written so vaguely that the [USDA] can and does suppress papers that may be inconvenient for other government agencies and industry.” — Anonymous USDA scientist, 2012
“ ‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — Anonymous USDA scientist on the agency’s social media policy, 2012
To be fair, this survey did not account for the 2013 updates to the USDA policy. What do we know about how the policy is being implemented currently? We can look to more recent cases for that.
As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, who recently left the agency, has filed as a whistleblower, claiming the USDA suppressed his research, which focuses on pesticide use and its impacts. Lundgren was a Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor for the USDA Agriculture Research Service. Among other complaints, Lundgren says that USDA disciplined him in retaliation for speaking publicly about his research and has stifled his ability to publish and talk to the media. When USDA dismissed his complaint, Lundgren appealed. In response, an internal Scientific Integrity Review Panel was convened and concluded that “the allegation was unsubstantiated and there was not a preponderance of evidence to establish that the USDA [scientific integrity policy] was violated.” Then in February, the USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong announced that she would be opening an investigation into the high volume of allegations around scientific integrity the department has been seeing, including Lundgren’s case.
Without getting into the details of the allegations, its worth looking at the degree to which the USDA scientific integrity policy is or isn’t equipped to address these kinds of issues. For one, the lack of clear guidance on if and how employees might express their personal views leaves scientists like Lundgren vulnerable if they choose to speak about research that might have policy implications or otherwise be controversial. The provision that “scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of … USDA” casts a fairly wide net under which the agency could claim scientists acted inappropriately.
Second, Lundgren’s case shows that the department hadn’t fully developed how it would handle scientific integrity accusations and appeals. Interestingly, the USDA scientific integrity policy update did add a provision on protection of whistleblowers and did add significant language on how such policies would be carried out. Note the above figure from the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Handbook. But it appears some of this procedural language hasn’t been fully implemented, at least in Lundgren’s case.
PEER also finds shortcomings in the policy. The group filed a petition for rulemaking at the agency asking it to revise its scientific integrity policy to include more clarity on handling scientific misconduct cases.
Regardless of how Lundgren’s case evolves, it highlights an important challenge at the USDA: How do you clearly and consistently implement a policy through a large and geographically dispersed agency? My past analysis of scientific integrity across the government suggests that these agencies may have more difficulty with policy implementation than those that are more centralized.
This case also reminds us that policies are easier to change than culture. Agencies can improve their policies on paper, but the work doesn’t stop there. Agencies need to take steps to facilitate a change in practices across the agency to ensure they are consistent with the new policy. Agency leadership must make clear to employees that scientific integrity is valued and that the agency takes the policy seriously. If this type of positive reinforcement isn’t consistently applied, employees are apt to forget or revert back to practices under past administrations when scientific integrity wasn’t a priority.
The Obama Administration has made strides in promoting the importance of scientific integrity across the government, but we still have a ways to go before the scientific integrity policies are effectively implemented at the USDA and elsewhere.]]>
But this one was different.
The notification said:
“Jerry Jones: Need more data before linking CTE, football.”
I did a double take. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Did the owner of one of the most valuable sports teams in the world just flat out deny the enormous body of science that has shown the link between football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)?
And this just one week after the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, told Rep. Jan Schakowksy (D-IL) that there is a link between football and brain trauma?
As my colleague Michael Halpern noted in a blog post almost three years ago, the NFL has a long history of covering up concussion and brain trauma research, almost unequivocally denying the connection between the violent hits in the game and brain damage.
Since then, scientists have studied the brain of a former star quarterback , and found that he was suffering from CTE. Since then, researchers at Boston University found CTE in 96 percent of NFL players that they examined, and 79 percent of all football players. Since then, there has been more research, an increase in the number of concussions in the NFL last season, and as I noted above, a stunning admission from the league itself, all showing the link between repetitive hits to the head in professional football and brain damage.
We continue to see vicious hit, after vicious hit, lead to concussions. CTE has been found in more than 100 former football players. These are just the cases that we know of.
The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. Previously, only one league official had ever publicly admitted to the link between football and long-term brain damage. Last week, Jeff Miller became the second. Now, the rest of the NFL, led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, needs to accept the science, and needs to accept reality. The owners, especially Jerry Jones, need to follow suit.
This very lucrative game is also a dangerous one. Instead of continuing to deny the science and spread misinformation, it’s time to for the league and the owners to find solutions to make the game safer.
This is not just a problem for the NFL. Thousands of pop warner leagues and high schools follow its lead. If the NFL and the owners continue to deny evidence, parents will have a more difficult time making informed decisions about the risks they should allow their kids to take.]]>
“This is a national crisis. And I talk to scientists who tell me that fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country.”
Now, for anyone who has been following this issue closely, they would know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft assessment “on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activites on drinking water resources” last summer. In a (what can only be described as misleading) press release, the agency claimed that fracking has “not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
How do we make sense of these conflicting messages?
Since the report’s release, an EPA Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has publicly met multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments (including those provided by more than 18,000 UCS supporters and Science Network members last September). So far, several of the SAB panelists agree that the EPA’s high-level conclusion that the agency did not find “widespread, systemic impacts” is not representative of the data presented in the 998 pages of the report.
This phrasing in the executive summary and the press release, which the EPA intentionally chose to put front and center, has become a lightning rod for the agency, the SAB, and the public. Consequently, industry has used this to suggest that there aren’t any problems with fracking activities, despite the fact that the report itself and the initial external scientific opinion is contrary, with the panel going so far as to say that the wording “does not reflect the uncertainties and data limitations” described in the assessment.
The SAB most recently met on Monday, and will meet at least once more today. Ultimately, the panel is responsible for providing feedback to the agency that hopefully the EPA will take into account before finalizing the assessment. The SAB is expected to complete its review in the next month or so, and in an initial draft report (not yet final) to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, has raised concerns and asked for more clarity around the major findings.
Specifically, the SAB has hinted at asking for clearer definitions of “systemic” and “widespread,” and will most likely ask the EPA to appropriately recognize the importance of local impacts related to fracking activities in the executive summary and supporting materials, instead of downplaying them.
However, there is some dissent. Led by Walter Hufford, who works for Talisman Energy, a handful of SAB panelists believe that the EPA’s topline finding is accurate and does not need any modification. This goes against what many of the panelists believe, and, also downplays the impacts of fracking activities in communities across the country.
More importantly, as my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman noted last summer, the draft assessment itself “found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources” and identified several pathways through which risk of water contamination exists.
This inherent contradiction is exactly why there needs to be more clarity in what the EPA is trying to say.
Hufford is also questioning what the EPA actually means when it talks about fracking in the assessment. During Monday’s meeting, he argued that the word “fracking” only refers to injecting water and chemicals at a high pressure into a well, and not the other activities associated with the “frack job,” such as constructing a well pad (before fracking) or transporting wastewater (after fracking). In his world, if wastewater from a fracked well polluted a water source (happened just yesterday in Ohio), it wouldn’t be as a result of “fracking.”
But this is a tortured argument at best. In the eyes of a community dealing with the impacts of fracking activities, there is no difference. And this is one thing the EPA is actually clear about. In all their materials, the agency continually refers to the topic of study as “hydraulic fracturing activities,” not just hydraulic fracturing (emphasis added), and specifically defines that these activities include everything from water acquisition to wastewater treatment and disposal.
As Dr. Goldman wrote, the point of this study, or any other fracking study, shouldn’t be to answer the question of whether we should support fracking, or whether fracking is safe. The point of the science is to tell us about the public health and safety risks of fracking (instead of just pretending they don’t exist), and provide accurate information to communities and policy makers so that they can make a well-informed decision.
The work of the SAB is critical, and the EPA’s final report can help citizens across the country sort through fact versus fiction. That is why the agency needs to get this right, and unambiguously communicate what its research and data suggest.
Further, in The Times, he conflates different types of requests and demands for information. He offers no solutions for creating a balance between transparency and privacy, erroneously suggesting that the harassment of scientists is a necessary evil for public accountability of science. Needless to say, we disagree.
This post explains (again) our position on disclosure, details just a few examples of where the op-ed went wrong, and suggests how to frame the discussion in a way that is constructive. You should also check out an excellent critique from my former UCS colleague Aaron Huertas and this piece from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.
My own interest in the use of excessive scrutiny to harass scientists began when emails were stolen from the UK’s University of East Anglia and misrepresented by climate contrarians to cast doubt on established climate science. The manufactured controversy duped many journalists, policymakers, and even some scientists who were slow to defend their colleagues.
Then Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli misused his authority to subpoena the private correspondence of University of Virginia climate scientists. He lost in the state Supreme Court. A coal industry-funded group subsequently tried to access the same records through the state’s open records law. They also lost in the Virginia Supreme Court, and then later in an Arizona superior court. Relatedly, the West Virginia Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of West Virginia University’s attempt to protect the deliberations of one of its scientists who studied mountaintop removal mining.
Through all of this legal maneuvering it became crystal clear how important it is for scientists to be able to develop ideas without fear that a few words could be taken out of context to unfairly cast doubt on their integrity. And why have courts, universities, and government science agencies consistently pushed back against universal disclosure?
“Compelled disclosure of their unpublished thoughts, data, and personal scholarly communications would mean a fundamental disruption of the norms and expectations which have enabled research to flourish at the great public institutions for over a century,” explained University of Virginia Provost John Simon.
Most recently, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith used a congressional subpoena to attempt to access the internal deliberations of scientists who published an important climate change paper he didn’t like, with an ever-shifting series of explanations for his actions. Note that a subpoena is not a mere request, as Thacker suggests. It’s a demand that can come with criminal consequences.
The chairman may have the authority to issue subpoenas. That’s a question for the lawyers. But if he is successful, the effect is that scientists—and not just in government—will fear future subpoenas should their results not suit the worldview of a powerful member of Congress. That chills scientific discourse.
Many hundreds of scientists urged NOAA to resist the subpoena. And contrary to Thacker’s claim, it wasn’t just “some scientists” who expressed concern about Chairman Smith’s actions—it was also AAAS and the major scientific societies that represent climate scientists. In response, the chairman temporarily pulled back on his demands, “prioritizing” communications among political appointees, the disclosure of which we have never objected.
As the attacks on climate scientists unfolded, we started hearing about similar instances of harassment in diverse academic disciplines. I wrote a report called Freedom to Bully detailing numerous examples where corporations, front groups, and activists of all political stripes have misused open records laws and subpoenas to intimidate academics and government researchers. The breadth and depth was shocking.
An ecologist who spent months responding to an open records request for thousands of documents related to her research into pollution in the Great Lakes. An epidemiologist who studies the public health impacts of hog waste and was threatened with criminal charges for failing to disclose the identities and personal health histories of people he interviewed for a study. Tobacco researchers who were ordered to give up the names and phone numbers of six-year-old children to tobacco companies.
Would a reasonable person really argue that this is the best system we can come up with?
And here’s the critical distinction: in none of these cases—not one—were the requesters solely seeking scientific data or methodology. That’s because data and research methods are made public when papers are published. Other scientists use this information to determine whether a published study is solid or lacks rigor, and scientific papers that are found to be fraudulent can be withdrawn. That’s how science works.
Thus, Thacker’s argument is hollow when he says that “the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research,” because access to the research is not precluded. To support his argument, he cites a number of examples of inappropriate political influence on science that have nothing to do with access to data and methodology: censorship of NOAA scientists during the Bush administration, Coke funding of a now-disbanded organization that downplayed the health impacts of sugar, an agreement between the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that allowed a fossil fuel company to approve a researcher’s papers.
It’s a classic bait and switch. Nobody—not UCS, not any credible science advocate—argues that access to scientific data and methodology should be off limits (except in narrow circumstances such as patient privacy or national security), especially when it is publicly funded. And many of us argue that we should be able to see documents that show financial relationships and any strings attached to those relationships.
“If a university researcher accepts NSF, NIH or other government funds, they are obligated to openly publish their research,” wrote one NYT commenter. “This is the standard channel for such results, not e-mail. E-mail messages while research is underway are usually unreliable, informal, loaded with intermediate, often erroneous ideas, and so forth. Frankly, I wouldn’t give two cents or any credibility to such ‘results.’ Industrial researchers — even when funded by the government — are not expected to ever release e-mails except under lawful subpoena. Why should university researchers be treated differently?”
Just days before we released Freedom to Bully in February 2015, a new fault line opened: an anti-GMO group called U.S. Right to Know requested wide swaths of correspondence among genetic engineering researchers. Again, our argument isn’t about whether open records requests are appropriate; it’s about their scope.
When they asked directly via email, we suggested to the group that more narrowly tailored requests would be better. We said that the group’s requests constituted harassment because they were so broad and seemed like fishing expeditions.
The group has since proved this point, publishing and deceptively framing emails on its website to intimate that reporters were taking money to write favorable stories on genetically modified food (they were not) and shopping around other manufactured controversies (and, to be fair, material that should have already been disclosed).
In his op-ed, Thacker contends that without the broad U.S. Right to Know requests, there would have been no way to know about previously undisclosed relationships between researchers and industry. Really? Some journalists filed more narrow requests and ended up with more than enough material.
For example, Eric Lipton, also writing for The New York Times, penned an article based on his own requests that examined the funding of research and public speaking among academics from both GMO companies and the organic food industry. While important information that should be made public was contained in the anti-GMO group’s requests, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t too broad, or that the content of some of the emails hasn’t been misused.
“Some of what we know about abusive practices in science,” writes Thacker, “[H]as come from reading scientists’ emails.” Should universities or government institutions that employ scientists be exempt from open records laws? Certainly not. Should all scientists’ emails be protected from public view? No way. Should we ensure that disclosure standards lead to accountability? Absolutely.
Those who have fully read the Freedom to Bully report and many subsequent articles should note that we consistently argue against overly broad exemptions to open records laws (which Thacker refuses to acknowledge). While we supported the university in the Virginia case, the report prominently references an amicus brief from media organizations filed against the university making that very same point. In fact, we invited the author of that brief to speak at a UCS-organized AAAS session on open records laws in 2015.
UCS regularly uses open records laws to learn more about inappropriate influence on and interference with government science and scientists. For example, a recent UCS FOIA request found that government scientists disagreed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. Numerous requests formed the basis of our multiple assessments of government media polices.
“Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are really not for transparency at all,” Thacker concludes. “The public should be alarmed.”
But the suggestion that scientists are hypocrites for supporting transparency while opposing absolute disclosure does not hold water. As Aaron Huertas writes (his emphasis):
Scientists would argue that the public should be alarmed when politicians and advocates attempt to stymie scientific research they don’t like. The argument scientists and scientific societies have made, repeatedly, is that there is a public interest in disclosure and a public interest in protecting scientists from political interference and harassment. Thacker only acknowledges the former point, arguing that harassment is the price worth paying for fuller transparency.
Do we know where the line is? Not yet. And that’s the challenge our society is grappling with. We have plenty of work to do to increase transparency in science and rid it of inappropriate influence. But that doesn’t mean we should scan every handwritten note, record every phone call, or publish every email on a website.
For scientists, the best defense against attacks is proactive disclosure of anything that could create a real or perceived conflict of interest, especially for researchers who work on issues that are publicly high-profile or contentious. But researchers receive severely inadequate guidance on what constitutes responsible disclosure. Often, the mistakes they make are out of ignorance or carelessness rather than an attempt to hide the truth.
So I will repeat what I wrote in October:
Together, we need to develop common disclosure standards and incentives to adopt them. The best way to avoid these costly and distracting fights is to agree on what should be disclosed and what should be kept private and develop mechanisms to encourage these standards to be embraced. This would put all researchers—public and private–on more equal footing. I think that scientists, journalists, corporations, and universities could come up with a common framework. Then, all institutions that receive government grants (such as those that come from the National Science Foundation) could be compelled to comply with that framework as a condition of receiving those grants. There are probably other enforcement mechanisms worth considering, too.
A more thoughtful balance between academic freedom and accountability will lead to better public understanding of science and policy outcomes that are more in line with the public interest. In the meantime, scientists who work on contentious issues should be prepared for all kinds of scrutiny, both justified and unjustified. Here’s a guide that helps scientists think through these challenges.
I’m happy to provide more context for any journalist who wants to explore these matters in detail.]]>
ALEC has been having a rough time lately. The organization purports to be about free markets, but actually, as we see so clearly in the climate and energy space and as UCS has documented many times, has often been more about obscuring the science and pushing an agenda that’s against energy progress and undermines market evolution.
That disconnect between what ALEC stands for and what leading companies know to be true—how market-oriented, fact-based, rational companies make decisions—has become irreconcilable for many companies—and their shareholders.
And now AEP, The Guardian newspaper reports, is not renewing its membership in ALEC, citing climate and energy reasons:
[A] spokesperson for AEP told The Guardian… “We are reallocating our resources as focus on our work with the states around the Clean Power Plan. There are a variety of reasons for the decision. We have long been involved in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”
For AEP, the company that has long chaired the task force responsible for ALEC’s unscientific position on climate change and attacks on clean energy policies, this move is a big one. But AEP is just the latest in a series of recent high profile exits from ALEC, including Facebook, oil/gas companies BP and Shell, and other electric utilities—more than 100 companies so far.
This is indeed an important step for AEP, but more steps are coming, and needed. The Guardian notes that “Nearly three-quarters of AEP’s generation was supplied by coal in 2005 but this is expected to drop to 51% next year, with renewable energy such as wind and solar comprising 11% of generation.” And the Associated Press reported just yesterday that AEP’s subsidiary Appalachian Power Co. is looking for another substantial chunk of wind power.
AEP has also reportedly shifted its position on the new EPA Clean Power Plan, according to The Guardian:
A company spokeswoman said AEP was previously concerned by the EPA’s plan to slash carbon emissions from power plants but only due to the pace of the proposed changes. AEP supports the EPA’s amended plan and the expansion of renewables in general, the spokeswoman added.
Since the Clean Power Plan represents a large part of what the U.S. is bringing to the table in the climate talks in Paris, it would be great for the utility to loudly trumpet support for international climate action as the talk continue this week, and as the U.S. lives into the commitments it makes there.
And AEP should do more to stand up for science wherever it sees challenges that hamper good decision making, wherever attacks on science persist (like on Capitol Hill). As it leaves ALEC, AEP needs to see what other organizations it’s supporting that are at odds its position on climate change. AEP is still listed as a member of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, for example, even though ACCCE still hasn’t come around to the notion of rooting decisions firmly in facts.
We look forward to seeing AEP’s words translated into even more actions toward sound science and clean energy.
History suggests, as Theodore Parker, John Adams, and Winston Churchill might have said, that the arc of understanding bends toward science, that facts about climate and energy are stubborn things, and that we Americans—including our utility companies—can eventually be counted on to do the right things to get our carbon house in order, maybe even before we’ve exhausted all other possibilities.
It’s great that AEP is moving toward a more solid foundation. And we’ll be waiting to see a whole lot more from companies that want to show themselves to be the leaders we need to take us into a clean energy future.
UPDATE (12/10/15): There’s news that, along with breaking with ALEC, AEP has trimmed its funding for ACCCE. That’s not as good as severing that unhealthy connection altogether, but it’s another sign of progress.]]>
A newly released document now confirms that FWS scientists disagreed with FWS leadership on its decision not to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, I wrote about this decision when a leaked memo showed FWS leadership choosing not to list the species, despite concerns from scientists about how climate change and potential lessening of snowpack would affect wolverine populations in the northern mountain states.
The new document—that the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the FWS—is a memo from the Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services in FWS Region 6 detailing the region’s scientific recommendation and justification for the wolverine needing federal protection. The memo states that based on the best-available science, “The Montana Field Office recommends that the wolverine listing be finalized as threatened under the [Endangered Species] Act.”
The revelation raises questions about whether the agency’s decision not to list the species, despite this recommendation from its own scientists, was based on science, as the Endangered Species Act requires. Specifically, the Act states that “the Secretary [of the Interior or of Commerce] shall make determinations … solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available…”
In another recent case, the FWS chose to delist gray wolves nationwide, ignoring the best available science coming from the independent scientific community. The FWS claimed that most of the nation was unsuitable for wolves due to “…a lack of tolerance of wolves…”. Yet a review of >100 articles on the science of tolerance for wolves does not support the claim and a summary of the literature commissioned by the FWS itself did not support the claim.
The scientific opinion of the Montana Office in the case of the wolverine and the opinions in the broader scientific community in the case of wolves were not heeded in the two cases described above. Was there additional scientific information that went into the FWS’ decision not to list the wolverine or the decision to delist the wolf? And importantly, why are the bases for this FWS decisions still unclear more than a year later? These unanswered questions demonstrate the need for an improved process for endangered species determinations at the FWS.
A growing group of scientists have signed onto a letter asking the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) to follow a process for obtaining independent scientific advice on listing and delisting decisions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The scientists’ letter outlines how the ESA mandate for best available science could be respected by relying on external, independent scientific input, without interference from non-scientists.
Specifically, the scientists are asking the DOI and DOC to entrust the scientific evaluation of species listing and de-listing determinations to an external committee of scientists who are best suited to assess the scientific evidence and make a public recommendation to the agency, based solely on the scientific and commercial data available, as the ESA requires.
Such a process makes a lot of sense. It could be implemented by the federal agencies without requiring changes to the law and it would enable the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation to focus on implementing the ESA. The proposal would also provide the public with a better understanding of how species listing decisions are made at the agency, increasing transparency and accountability for such decisions. This could lead to less political interference in what should be science-based decisions on endangered species.
A recent survey of scientists at the FWS conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that such a proposal might address some concerns among agency scientists. Seventy-three percent of respondents (601 scientists) felt that consideration of political interests was too high at FWS. When asked what would most improve scientific integrity at the FWS, one scientist suggested, “clear documentation on what standards are being used to make recommendations and what standards are used in the final decision. For example, under the ESA the FWS is prohibited from considering economic considerations when making a listing recommendation. However, final decision makers are known to apply a political/industry filter to those decisions because of the perceived impact an ESA listing will have to a segment of the economy.”
Another respondent noticed a discrepancy between the level of science required to list vs. de-list a species. “Frequently, information on a particular issue (e.g., petition to list) must be overwhelming to decide to list a species, although downlisting or delisting does not have the same standard of overwhelming information to prove that a species has recovered.” A process for independent scientific advice as proposed above would seek to address these issues of political interference and inconsistent decision making within the agency.
It’s also worth noting that such a process is not unprecedented when it comes to science-based decision making at federal agencies. Take the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, which uses external Science Advisory Boards for making decisions on its rule making. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which I’ve written about extensively, assesses scientific understanding of ambient air pollutants and their health effects and makes recommendations to the agency on what air quality standards should be. This process creates a space for exclusive consideration of scientific evidence supporting a rule and it allows the public to observe scientific consensus-building.
Importantly, a standard, uniform process designed by the independent scientific community creates a separation between the scientific recommendation and the political decision that follows, allowing for accountability for the agencies’ decision. First, this gives the agency political cover if it does make a decision based on science and it allows the public to hold them accountable when they don’t. Why don’t the DOI and DOC enact a similar process for species listings?
Scientists are proposing a solution that allows independent science to better inform endangered species determinations and do so in a transparent and consistent way. Please join me in supporting better use of science to protect threatened species in the US.