No change re: science either?

The Los Angeles Times today has an article by Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger entitled, “Scientists expected Obama administration to be friendlier.” Now there are many areas where we have felt disappointed (to put it mildly) in this administration. But the one area we had assumed was a break from the past was in the area of science. The Bush administration, consistent with its know-nothing approach to almost everything (except politics), had no use for science. When you have an ideology that covers all issues, there is no need for evidence. Plus, the basic approach of science — careful assessment of data and skepticism towards claims inconsistent with well-accepted theories — was completely at odds with the world view of George W. Bush and his enablers. Bush was not very smart, but he was confident. He was a believer. Hell, he was sent by God. And God’s not keen on scientists.

Obama by contrast was supposed to be an evidence guy. He has the manner of someone who can make a calm decision. He even told us during the campaign that he would “chart a new course.” In written answers to questions by ScienceDebate2008 he said:

“he will not allow the ‘war on science’ perpetrated under George W. Bush to continue. Scientists—especially those in the government’s employ—can look forward to an administration that will not be beset by recurrent scandals over political meddling with research. In fact, Obama has specifically pledged to protect scientist whistleblowers and make sure his administration avoids political interference with scientific reports released to the public.”

A week into the presidency WiredScience noted a flurry of reversals of specific policies and concluded that as concerned science, “So far, so good.” But it pointedly also noted that there was a far way to go, given what the Bush Administration had done. And there’s where the rub is.

In the Times article there is a number of anecdotes that suggest that policy is still driving science decisions, especially in politically sensitive areas. The most serious question involves the use of dispersants in the Gulf. The decision seems, even by the EPA’s own explanation, to be a seat-of-the-pants one. The roll of the dice seems to be a high stakes one, given that the dispersant that British Petroleum decided to use, Corexit 9500, is known to have adverse health effects, but not all the ingredients have been studied because the manufacturer claimed they were propriety, and evidently this administration is one that can take “no” for an answer. Beside the effects on workers, the dispersant potentially creates serious environmental problems on its own. A cynic might even argue that using the dispersant to reduce the sight of oil-drenched birds and instead render the oil amenable to introduction in the food-chain was a political decision to avoid bad television pictures at the expense of the environment.

In other respects the article raises concerns about whether whistler blowers are listened to and whether managers override science. The article does not make a damning case, but it raises concerns. The most serious one is that the Administration failed to remove the managers that were responsible for the over-riding of science in the last administration. This has been a serious management problem for the Obama administration overall, and therefore it’s easy to believe. Much of the information, however, comes from a single source: “Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.” The organization is Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)  whose website describes the organization as “a national alliance of local state and federal [environmental] resource professionals.” It has a track-record of accomplishments, but expressly says that “Many of the best things we do at PEER, we cannot talk about. Working behind the scenes, we have saved the careers of hundreds of conscientious public servants, often by talking them out of publicly blowing the whistle and convincing them to work through PEER instead to expose a problem.”

It’s hard to know exactly how seriously to consider this as a problem. The fact that it represents a pattern repeated in so many other aspects of this administration — failure to live up to explicit campaign promises because of refusal to get rid of right-wing holder-overs — makes it depressing enough. But enough of these failures eventually add up to more than simply poor or craven management — they will at some point show that the Administration actually endorses the policy outcome that it’s poor management decisions have allowed to happen.

Update 1: Paul Rosenberg of Open Left interviewed Ruch last November who explained that the gag order at the EPA came about because the administration had not yet forumulated its science policy and therefore it required scientists to keep quiet until they did. Rosenberg concludes this way:

“So, ‘His administration self-destructed in the name of message discipline. They embraced groupthink in the name of message discipline.’

What a fitting political epitaph!

God, I hope I’m wrong.  But if they don’t want to hear from their own staff scientists, who do they want to hear from?  Aside from the big money donors, of course.”

Update 2: Dahr Jamail has an eye-opening account of the effects of the dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, which BP has used in the Gulf — 1.4 million gallons so far. The mild description that it causes headaches and nausea in humans fails to capture the effects graphically described by Jamail. Its environmental effects — which his witnesses depict as acting like a lava lamp beneath the surface — seem even more sinister. The notion that no one is in charge of what’s going on is more than confirmed by Jamail’s reporting from the Gulf.

Update 3: Less than 3 days after the triumphant sounding efforts to finally cap the well took place this weekend, BP announced today (July 14) it “froze activity on two key projects Wednesday meant to choke off the flow of oil …” As usual, its actual failure was followed up with a farcical explanation of its supposed good intentions. Says BP Senior Vice President Kent Well: “We want to move forward with this as soon as we are ready to do it.” Doesn’t it seem like a very long time ago that BP was deftly able to portray itself as the caring company diligently seeking to transition itself to renewable resources?

Update 4: Not to drag every BP crime into this thread but solely to show how the “grown-ups” all march in lock-step with the Colombian administration of Álvaro Uribe and therefore how critics like Hollman Morris by definition have to be terrorists, it’s instructive to read about BP’s involvement in Colombia. A Friends of the Earth media briefing entitled “Pumping Poverty” describes how in order to build and operate its OCENSA pipeline BP paid $1 per barrel to the Colombian military to act with local right wing para-military forces to dispossess local farmers and otherwise “protect” BP’s investment. It quotes a 1999 report by CAFOD, Christian Aid, CIIR, Oxfam GB and Save the Children Fund UK:

“BPXC (BP Exploration Colombia) has seriously underestimated the implications that its investments in a region of violent conflict would have for the security of the poor in the region. Given the country’s history of conflict around strategic resources such as oil, the company’s presence risks polarising local society, thereby a) creating victims of the armed conflict and b) contributing to increasing poverty, as a result of disputes over distribution of revenues, however unwittingly.”

Yes, we too wonder how unwillingly. In June 2006 BP settled with 52 farmers in some amount believed ot be less than £15 million for the harassment (to put a polite term on it) by the paramilitary groups “protecting” the pipeline. The settlement denied liability and according to the Independent BP made it seem like a downright act of benevolence to the ignorant farmers because the trust fund set up “a programme of workshops for the farmers dealing with issues such as environmental management, business development and other topics requested by the farmers.” BP’s lawyers were even able to obtain the following statement from the British lawyers representing the farmers: “[The] Colombian farmers are pleased with the outcome of the mediation and are of the view that BP Colombia has acted in a fair, committed and sympathetic manner in dealing with their situation during the course of the mediation.” The BP that dealt with death squads in Colombia is a whole lot more caring than the one we see in the Gulf today, no?

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