Heroes of Sound Science

Published September 1, 2000

“Don’t rock the boat” can be sound advice for a small craft plying rough seas.

When the boat being rocked is the ship of state, scientists who question the captain’s judgement could find themselves walking the plank.

Whether they are working in government or on the outside, scientists must think twice before raising questions about the scientific underpinnings of official policies. The temptation to “go along to get along” is almost irresistible in light of the punishment that can be meted out to those who stray from the fold.

Scientists in the employ of federal agencies who find evidence that conflicts with the current administration’s political objectives must worry about losing promotions and perks, such as travel or special assignments, and even their jobs. Their careers can easily be jeopardized by superiors (who may not be scientists) eager to curry favor with those higher up in the pecking order.

Scientists on the outside might appear at first glance to have more freedom to speak against government policies with which they disagree. But many of these scientists or the institutions for which they work are heavily dependent on federal grants.

Scientists create paper trails every time they publish. Government officials reviewing grants for agencies with set agendas can easily determine whether a scientist has strayed from the path of political righteousness. Their ability to bestow or withhold grants is on the mind of every scientist applying for the money. For some, this means holding their tongues at conferences or engaging in other forms of self-censorship in order to protect their livelihoods.

Despite the threats and disincentives against speaking out, some scientists have vocally challenged federal policies that are not based on sound science. Some have paid dearly.

Laws designed to protect “whistleblowers”—federal employees who speak out about illegal or unethical conduct in their agencies—are either toothless or simply ignored. The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), for example, provides little assurance to anyone contemplating speaking out that retaliation will not be forthcoming. The six major federal environmental laws–Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund)–contain strong whistleblower protection provisions, but EPA managers routinely disregard them.

Stephen Kohn, president of the Washington-based National Whistleblowers Center, told a House Science Committee hearing in March that many upper-level EPA managers, including attorneys, don’t even know the whistleblower protection provisions in the above-cited laws exist. Given this level of what Kohn calls “willful ignorance,” it should come as no surprise that whistleblowers are routinely subject to reprisals by their superiors.

Scientists David Lewis, William Marcus, Brian Rimar, and Bill Sanjour challenged the politicized science being practiced at EPA. As a consequence, they were harassed and forced to defend themselves against unfounded allegations of every description. EPA was ultimately forced to settle with the three dissident scientists, but their careers were ruined. Kohn and the affected scientists agree the situation for whistleblowers at EPA became much worse under Administrator Carol Browner.

While government scientists face the ever-present threat of reprisals for their dissenting views, they are not the only ones can get in trouble. Will Happer, the Bush-appointed director of energy research at the Department of Energy, had been asked by Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary to continue serving through at least the end of July 1993. But when he expressed doubts about the alleged dangers of ozone depletion and global warming at an April 1993 House hearing, he quickly found himself persona non grata in the Clinton-Gore administration and was sent packing back to Princeton University.

Astrophysicist S. Fred Singer, an outspoken skeptic of the theory of global warming, found himself confronted by accusations that he received funds from the Unification Church in a 1994 telecast of Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Climatologist Pat Michaels of the University of Virginia, contributing editor for Environment & Climate News and another global warming skeptic, was accused on the same program of accepting money from the coal industry. The source of the charges, as explained by Koppel, was the staff of Vice President Al Gore.

The scientific arguments put forward by Singer and Michaels were not challenged by the Vice President’s office. Instead, the attacks focused on unpopular donors tp and past clients of the dissenters, even though the scientists’ views invariably pre-dated any financial support from interested parties.

In light of the lavish financing provided to global warming extremists by such far-left groups as the Tides Foundation, Greenpeace, and Union of Concerned Scientists, the question of who funds whom is a double-edged sword for the Clinton-Gore administration. In truth, funding sources ought to be irrelevant. The point of the whole Nightline exercise was to discredit the scientists . . . not through superior science, but through innuendo.

Those who stand behind their science regardless of the consequences to their careers and families are, in the genuine sense of the word, heroes. They sacrifice their own interests and gain for the cause of advancing knowledge to better the human condition. They deserve our thanks and deepest appreciation.

When the history of the twentieth century is written, the chapters on science should contain sections on these heroes of science. Future generations of scientists should know the names of Singer, Michaels, Lewis, Marcus, Rimar, and Sanjour, and aspire to emulate their heroic work.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.