Francesca Grifo – Science Under Obama

July 30, 2010

When President Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009, he pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” in the U.S. government. And true to his word, the president promptly staffed his cabinet with distinguished scientific leaders, liberated embryonic stem cell research from the Bush era restrictions, and released a  memorandum on “scientific integrity” intended to reverse the kinds of problems seen in the Bush years.

Since those days, however, the “scientific integrity” agenda does not seem to have filtered through the federal government as hoped. And according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, some scientists are having problems in this administration when it comes to speaking with the media, or having their research results properly handled by their superiors.

To put these developments in context, Point of Inquiry called upon Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As Grifo explains, claims that the Obama administration is behaving like the Bush administration did on science are absurd. However, the administration must do more to deliver on President Obama’s pledge to restore science to its “rightful place”—and move swiftly to address reports of scientific discontentment.

Francesca Grifo is a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert in biodiversity conservation, and heads up UCS’s Scientific Integrity Project. She has testified before Congress about scientific integrity and is widely quoted  in the press on the topic. Prior to joining UCS, she was at Columbia University where she ran the Science Teachers Environmental Education Program.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 30th, 2010. 

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass. My guest this week is Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ve asked Dr. Griffo on the show to talk about a question that’s very close to my heart. At his inauguration, President Obama pledged to restore science to its rightful place in our government. So how is he doing in fulfilling this promise? I also wanted to ask Dr. Grifo to address some recent charges, which I’m not sure I buy, that the administration itself is guilty of abusing science, much as the Bush administration did. Francesca Grifo is a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and is an expert in biodiversity conservation. She also heads up UCSD Scientific Integrity Project and has testified before Congress about scientific integrity. 

Prior to joining UCSD, she was at Columbia University, where she ran the Science Teachers Environmental Education Program. Francesca Griffo welcomed the point of inquiry. Thank you. You are head of the Scientific Integrity Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists. This is an initiative I know pretty well from my own journalism. But perhaps first let’s tell listeners what it is and something of its origins, why it came to be. 

Well, I think as you’ve aptly documented in your work in the last administration, we saw an increasing pattern of where science was available, in some cases for the highest bidder. But I think really, you know, science is a very powerful tool. So it only made sense for all the sides of the debate to want to have it on their sides. Unfortunately, what happened was in many instances, the science would be changed in order to fit the agenda of different sides of a given issue. And that’s where the problems really come in. We work hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen, to make sure that as the science travels from the scientist into the policy arena, that it in fact arrives unchanged and ready for use. 

And this this initiative did originate with the 2004 February. I remember you had this incredible sign on letter of all these Nobel laureates denouncing the Bush administration for tampering with science. And that really put the Bush administration in science story on the map. Let’s go back over just so people remember, some of them, some of the egregious cases of the last administration. Which ones really stick out for you? 

Too many to count. But I think one thing is, you know, we do have our aid as a guide to political interference in science on our Web site, where you can find many, many literally hundreds of examples. I think my personal favorite was when there was a problem with lead in vinyl lunchboxes and that a scientist went to his supervisor and said, oh, you know, we’re getting these high levels of lead. And the supervisor said, we’ll just go back and keep swiping because with each successive swipe, the amount of lead goes down and just keeps swiping till it’s zero and then take an average. I mean, clearly, that’s a problem. When my child’s licking his spilled yogurt off of his lunchbox, he’s not getting an average exposure. He’s getting a total exposure. So it’s a little sleight of hand like that that happened across the board, whether we’re talking about health issues, public health issues, other broader environmental issues, just very much across the board. 

The Bush administration really was systematic. That’s what I argued. And you really saw it across climate change, reproductive health issues, lot of endangered species issues. What did you ultimately conclude was was driving all of these problems? 

Well, I think there were two things driving it. I think one was, again, I mean, as I alluded to, this need to have science on your side in order to win the day. But I think, you know, behind political interference, of course, is private sector interference. I mean, it’s about money. It’s about greed. On the other hand, there were the many examples that had to do with reproductive health, of course, were primarily ideologically driven. 

Well, then President Obama came into office. He had formed a strong scientific advisory team on the campaign trail. I like to think maybe it had something to do with this initiative, Science Debate 2008, where we’re sort of pushing the candidates to get their science policies together. But he established a team and then on Inauguration Day, he promised to restore science to its rightful place in U.S. government. So you must’ve been pretty psyched at that point. 

We weren’t. We were incredibly hopeful, very, very excited. And then, of course, the next step in the story is the March nine Scientific Integrity Memo, which included a number of principals and tasked Dr. John Holdren, the science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, OSTP, to take those principles and work with the agencies to come up with a plan for how this could actually be implemented. So that was the next. We had 120 days to do that and that was the next step. 

And then. Well, I wanted to. Talk about what happened with that going awry. But first, just a little more context. John Holdren was one of the top scientists involved in criticizing the Bush administration for misusing science. So when John Holdren comes in, you know, it’s clearly a sea change. And you also have Steven Chu at the head of the Energy Department, a Nobel laureate. You’ve got Jane Lubchenco put in as the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You got this really pro science government building up because you also have a stimulus bill which gives a great infusion of cash to universities and research institutions. So all across the board, I think scientists were incredibly excited with the Obama administration. 

I think that’s right. And I think, you know, a lot of those things have come to fruition. I mean, we have seen, you know, Dr. Holdren do a lot of work on the climate issue, for example, a lot of work on funding levels for agencies. We’ve seen good things come from Dr. Lubchenco and Dr. Chu. You know, when I am frustrated about the scientific integrity executive order, I don’t want to paint the whole administration as being anything like the previous or anti science, because that simply wouldn’t is not the case. 

Mm hmm. Well, let’s get into why it is that there may be some problems at least that are that are emerging. It does seem that in the last two weeks or something, there’s been some criticism of the Obama administration on science. So what changed? And how worried should we be? Is this is sort of a temporary blip or is this something where you’re starting to get really concerned? 

Well, I think it’s not a temporary blip. I think it is a very important issue. I think that, you know, it is time for the administration to release an executive order or directive or whatever form it’s going to take that really will give more specific guidance to the agencies, because I think what we’ve seen is that, in fact, without that, that we aren’t seeing penetration of this science administration into the depths of the agencies. We’re seeing many of the same situations that we saw in the last administration. And specifically, I mean, you know, we have rank and file scientists that are very committed to their work, working very hard, wanting to do the right thing. And this layer of supervisors above them, who very often are not scientists, are not political appointees either, but are simply the bureaucracy in many ways. And they have many deeply entrenched reasons for wanting things not to change. I think the hopeful point is that at the tops of many of these agencies, we do see folks that are very committed to change. But there’s this disconnect. There’s this chasm, you know, between that upper level of good intentions and the scientists who are wanting things to change. And that’s what we’ve got to cross. And it’s really going to be, you know, quite a journey to do that. 

So a lot of sluggishness in terms of actually implementing the president’s optimistic pro science agenda sluggishness. 

And I think also just you know, this is a gigantic, complex system. You know, it doesn’t move on its own. It really needs a lot of encouragement and, you know, a very clear roadmap in order to change. I mean, I think one example that we can look to is the transparency directive. This was also released at roughly the same time when the administration was new. And in that case, we had significant leadership in the White House. We had a very transparent process. We had an ongoing process. And the transparency directive is starting to have penetration in the agencies. Is it perfect? Is it right? No, it’s not. It’s going to take a long time for those agencies to change. But do we have a specific set of guidelines? You know, do we have a template? Do we have a timeline? Benchmarks, you know, to measure agency performance and create accountability for agency compliance? Yes, we do. And we don’t have those things for scientific integrity. 

Well, then that is one of the key issues is this directive. I remember I did a column for science progress when, you know, just sort of applauding Obama’s. And if I remember correctly, it’s a it’s an executive order that he released. Is that right? 

It was a memo that he released on that, you know, and and Dr. Holdren was supposed to come back to him with specific guidance from which he could craft a directive or an executive order. 

And basically there passed the timeline for doing that. 

Yes, the timeline was 120 days from last March 9th. So we are over a year late, not just from the March 9th deadline, but also from when this actual other piece of information was supposed to come out from OSTP. 

And a lot of this was aired recently in a Los Angeles Times story that inspired me to call you and have you on the show. It was entitled, Scientists Expected Obama Administration to be Friendlier. And in there, Dr. Holdren did have a response on this point. He said that effectively this memo was already policy and that it would be augmented if I. Well, his words. What is your response to that? 

Well, I mean, I think that’s right. It is effectively policy, but policy doesn’t get it implemented on its own, particularly when a policy requires significant and deep change. And that’s why, you know, and I’ll go back to what I said earlier, the White House must provide specific guidelines, a timeline and benchmarks to measure agency performance and create accountability for agency compliance. That’s what we have to have. That’s the difference between the scientific integrity work and the transparency directive, which came with all those details and came with, you know, an implementation plan. And, you know, I recognize that this is hard. I am sure that there are significant parts of the executive branch that want nothing to do with this. This is going to require an unprecedented level of transparency and openness, particularly when we talk about things like media policy. You know, that’s the piece that we are hearing from both journalists and scientists alike, that nothing’s changed, that they try to reach scientists, they try to get information, and the message is being very tightly controlled. This is not Dr. Holdren at work. This is the administration and a broader policy. So I’m not surprised that this is a very hard thing to do. I can only hope that part of the reason for the delay is that, in fact, Dr. Holdren is holding a line and saying, no, that’s not good enough. That’s not deep enough. That’s not broad enough. I you know, I just keep hoping that that’s the case and that we will see something strong very soon. 

It’s interesting you mentioned media policies because this became one of the top concerns with the Bush administration. James Hansen, front page New York Times story. The Andrew Rafkin wrote, and I remember it, Hansen was saying, you know, they’re trying to control my ability to speak with the media. And then we saw that on the issue of hurricanes and global warming, there appeared to be sort of a selective tilt in the Bush administration in terms of what scientists spoke to the media in which scientists did not. So it’s it’s of concern if there is too much control over government scientists ability to speak out, which issues is this affected? 

You know, it’s across the board. I think obviously the huge issue that’s in the news right now, which is what we’re hearing about, are issues surrounding the oil spill, surrounding the dispersants, surrounding the rate of flow. I mean, there have been, you know, a lot of allegations out there. But I think the important one for this purpose is that, in fact, when members of the media have tried to talk to scientists about their research results, that, in fact, they’ve been rebuffed. Now, I want to be clear that this does not mean that we have every scientist in every agency making policy. This means that scientists are allowed to talk to the media about their research results. And then if they want to talk about what those results mean, what those results should be used for. That’s a different step. And at that point, they need to take off their agency hats and say, I’m now speaking as a citizen who happens to be a scientist and continue the conversation at that point. So we need to be clear at this. We’re not asking for a free for all where every scientists in every agency is just speaking off the cuff about everything. You know, there does still need to be some discipline here. But even this small thing that we’re asking for is is not happening. 

Let’s talk a little more about the Gulf spill and fighting it with chemical dispersants. And the Obama administration obviously allowed this to go forward. And in the Los Angeles Times story about the Obama administration and its scientists having a little bit of tension now. The charge was that they’d allowed the use of dispersants to go forward, quote, despite advice to examine dangers more thoroughly. And I was reading this and I was thinking, well, wait a minute, who had time to examine dangers more thoroughly? This was a crisis. And I was wondering, did you really abuse science if in the face of uncertainty you said, yeah, let’s use them because we’ve got this oil spill and we don’t know what to do about and how bad it’s going to be? 

Yeah. To my mind, that is not necessarily I don’t have all the information, so I’m not going to say forever and forever. But at this point, it doesn’t appear to be a scientific integrity issue because of exactly what you’re saying. I mean, I think in this case, those were policy decisions. You have competing demands and that’s why people get elected to make those hard decisions. That’s not a science decision. If I hear something, for example, about how the research results that go with one of those dispersants were suppressed or were manipulated or changed. That’s the scientific integrity issue. But as long as the government is saying, oh, my God, here’s one hard thing and here’s another hard thing and I’m going to make a decision that’s gonna be difficult and impossible. You know, that’s just business as usual, I think, for political bodies such as our federal government. But we don’t want to hear that the science is being suppressed or changed or cherry picked. That would be a big problem. And I just don’t know at this point which way that’s going. But it doesn’t appear to be. 

I think that this distinction is really, really critical because especially when you’re using science in government decision making, it’s not just open ended research that you can pursue on a timeline of your choosing and do in a relaxed way. You’re constantly using science that’s incomplete to make a decision that if you don’t make it, then there might be consequences from your inaction. So in that context, you’re often forced to go upon information that’s not as good as you would hope it to be. And that’s not the nature of using science and policy. So, so, so. But then suppressing information of any type would would really be crossing a line. But just using incomplete information is not well unless you’re using incomplete information on purpose. 

Right. And not in a not including. But if the information’s just incomplete. You got to do something. 

You got it actually. We don’t know everything about everything. 

Well, let’s let’s go through this. This is Los Angeles Times report. And it did concern me because the charges about the Bush administration, they started not just with UCLA, but they started with journalists sort of saying here’s a laundry list of complaints. And then they really it really snowballed. And I’m not at all sure that it’s going to snowball with this administration. 

But let’s let’s go through some of these these charges. It says that in Florida, water quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects. 

You know, I don’t know a lot more than is in the article. And again, I you know, I just want to say with all of these examples and our work in the last administration, you know, it really does take an enormous amount of investigative work to figure out what’s going on. You know, we go back to the original documents. We want to see very specific early pieces of information that lead to these conclusions. And I will say, you know, for most of these examples, we don’t have that yet. We are looking into it. We do look into allegations that are brought to our attention. But I think if you go to our Web site and look at the A to Z guide, you’ll see that we present primary documents and it takes time to pull those out. 

I understand. And as a reporter who actually in the Bush administration, I certainly I fleshed out many of the stories and I looked into them myself. But then in other cases, I’m like, someone’s making an allegation. I haven’t had time to look into this one. There is always a point counterpoint in any of these cases. And you’ve often got a whistleblower in a tense relationship with supervisors. It is very hard to say right and wrong. But if you start to see a lot of charges, then there are reasons to at least take note of that. 

Absolutely. What is your sense of how the administration is responding now that the charges have been aired? 

I don’t think there’s been any response, really. I mean, I think that that’s part of the problem is that we’re not hearing back any sort of progress to say, OK, we get it. We get that. The reason there’s room for all of this doubt, the reason that, you know, scientists are running around trying to figure out, can I speak about this? Should I should I not is because we don’t have this clear guidance that, you know, is the whole point of the scientific integrity order and having this kind of specificity in the policies that would be laid out. I recognize that there are principles that were laid out in the March 9th memorandum and that those are binding on agencies. But if you’re a scientist in an agency, you want a memo from the head of your agency or you want a memo from your supervisor that is really going to define this stuff for you and help you understand what it is that you can say and what it is that you can’t say. And that’s what’s missing. I mean, I would not agree, although I often do agree with my colleague, Jeff Brooke. I would not agree that these things are coming in at the same rate as during the Bush administration. 

And this is just to clarify, he’s the head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is a group that flags these kind of abuses. 

And I think he does amazing good work. I mean, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not hearing things coming into me at the same rate. Am I hearing things? Am I hearing too many things? Absolutely. You know, am I disappointed that I’m still hearing so many things frustrated? Absolutely. But I don’t think we are yet at the level of the previous administration. 

Well, I certainly I certainly don’t. And I think that one reason I wanted to do a show on this, nevertheless, was just say, hey, you know, this has now made its way to the Los Angeles Times doing a, you know, sort of investigative story. This is how it started with the last administration. Hello, Obama administration. You know, we don’t think that you guys are engaged in the same level of abuses, but you got to you got to address this now, because as I recall, what happened with the Bush administration was that John Marburger, who was the equivalent of John Holdren for that administration, what he did, rather than address it immediately when it came up, was he sort of did a pseudo report saying there’s no there’s no fire here. It’s all smoke, but there’s no substance to the allegations. And that was wrong. 

And hopefully the. Obama team, they have not denied that there might be problems. They haven’t done the Marburger routine. 


To their credit wagon, circling would dig the hole deeper. And we definitely there’s not any evidence of that yet. And that I guess I would argue that’s one difference with administrations so far. 

And, you know, releasing the order with these specific implementation plan would be giant. It would not just be not digging a hole. It would be creating a mountain. I mean, it would be just a great way to put a stop to this. And I am wondering why these dots aren’t being connected, because I think we now have examples connected to the oil spill. We have a lot of questions about Avandia and the FDA hearing on Avandia and what that decision is going to look like. These are things that are still popping up in various places across the administration. So it’s certainly time to connect those dots and come out with something that will really allow us to move forward instead of continually going back over these same sorts of issues that are becoming just way too familiar. 

Let’s talk about a bit about the dynamics of this, because another thing that surprises me about the Obama related charges, such as they are so far, is that if you look at them, they sound like Bush administration charges. You know, the Everglades are, you know, grazing on lands that some government scientists who are supposed to protect the environment are saying we can’t protect the environment. It doesn’t sound like something that ideologically the Obama administration would want to be doing, whereas it does sound like something ideologically a Bush administration would want to be doing. So why why are these kinds of allegations emerging that don’t make sense politically? 

Well, I think there’s a couple of reasons for that, I would guess. I mean, obviously, I don’t have special inside knowledge, but I think that a lot of these things are business as usual at these agencies. They are the way that these agencies operate specifically. For example, if we want to look at FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Food and Drug Administration encountered a major crisis a number of years ago in terms of getting Reven enough for having enough revenues and enough money to actually fund drug approvals. So a system was created called the Prescription Drug User Fee Act by Congress to allow FDA to collect fees from industry to support the review of pharmaceuticals. Well, that’s just a bad system. I mean, that’s just a system where you have the pharmaceutical companies having way too cozy an important seat when you have supervisors in an agency who are going to be promoted, not based on how many lives they save, but how many drugs they get reviewed and approved. That’s a real disincentive to go slowly and carefully and protect the American public from these unsafe drugs. So we still have big systemic issues like that one in place. And those are going to continue to be in place and continue the inertia, which is what the administration has to fight in order to create this kind of change. 

Do you think also I shared this concern about, you know, how is the Obama administration doing with science on my blog? And there were a lot of people who came in and commented and they said, well, we think a lot of this is that they’re a Bush administration political appointees who are still in the Obama administration. They haven’t left and they’re just not either continuing their political business as usual. And that certainly was the dynamic in the last administration where you had scientists at lower levels of the agency being controlled by political people, appointed by the president to be in line with his party. Do you think that there are holdovers and that that’s part of it, you know, scattered? 

But no, I don’t think that’s a big part of it. I don’t think we’re looking at this massive epidemic of borrowing. Bush administration officials. I mean, there’s a few here and there. I think it’s more in many instances like the FDA, the fundamental way that these agencies work. And it’s very hard work to change that. And that’s why I am so worried that we have squandered this much time. This began over a year ago. We may only have four years with this particular administration. And if we don’t get this stuff changed and start to penetrate deeply into the agencies, I mean, that inertia can work both ways because once you do get different policies in place, it does take a long time to change them back. So we want to get this moving quickly so that by the time this first four years is up, these policies have actually penetrated deeply into the agencies and we’ll be that much harder to change by any future administration. 

What you’re convincing me of here is that really these stories that we’re worried about with Obama in science are actually they sound quite parallel to the sort of blowup over the Minerals Management Service in the wake of the Gulf spill and the fact that this agency had been doing very, very sketchy things for a very, very long time. And suddenly it’s Obama’s fault. He’s been president long enough that, you know. Oh, it’s on your plate now. You know, you should have fixed this and now we’re here. What you’re saying is that’s true of a lot of other places. It’s just there. They’re not reigning in bad practices that existed before them. And the culture of change that was supposed to infect Washington is not affecting it, perhaps fast enough. 

I think that’s right. Although, you know, I just I also want to say that I think there some places where things are beginning to change. I think, you know, Lisa Jackson has taken this on and cares deeply about this issue at the Environmental Protection Agency. Does that mean it fully penetrated down to the level of regular scientists doing their work in a different way? Not quite, but at least her intention is there. She has created some leadership at that agency. And I think what that says is it’s doable. It’s possible. I think, you know, Dr. Lubchenco at Nova is another example of where that was an agency where scientists were feeling particularly beleaguered. And again, I think the situation is better. But again, it’s not perfect. It’s not done. It’s not finished. We need this, you know, executive order. 

It’s interesting, you mentioned EPA and Noah, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, because your organization put out studies on both of them in the last administration where you found a high volume of scientists at the agencies. I forget how you surveyed them. It was probably a very act of art to get them all on the record. But they were saying reporting high levels of political abuse at both those agencies. You think that they would not report as high levels now if you could survey them again? 

I know it’s hard to know, I think. Probably not. I think they probably would report differently. I think part of that is that there is this desire for things to change. And in the face of small changes, they will continue to believe that, you know, there’s hope and that this is going to happen. When we surveyed them last time, it was in the midst of, you know, after five, six, seven years of no change and things getting worse. So I think, you know, if you’re going to compare now when there’s some sense of hope to then when there was very little hope for change until there was a political change at the highest levels, you would see significant differences. Again, I wouldn’t over interpret that to mean that everything’s hunky dory and just fine. I think there’s still a lot of hard work that needs to be done. 

Well, let’s let’s conclude here. What is. You’ve given this summer is your future outlook on what needs to happen. And are you confident the administration can fix these problems or alternatively will pretty soon? I mean, the conservatives are already doing it, but will there be a, quote, Democrat war on science or is that just ridiculously overblown? 

I would have to agree that that’s a little over the top. 

I don’t think we’re going to see a democratic war on science, but I do think we need to be mindful and focused and really turn our attention to this. I think that one of the things that’s very tempting for an administration is to let the urgent get in the way of the important. And I recognize that this administration has been hit time and time again, the climate issue, the oil spill. I mean, there have been many, many things that have been unbelievably urgent. But I think that they need to remember that this scientific integrity order is important and that if we can get it out there and start to change these agencies, that we have the potential to make some of the urgent go away. And we’ve they’ve just got to take this on and figure out a way to devote some resources to getting this thing done and out. 

Well, great. And we will be watching them and looking for that progress. Francesca Grifo, it’s been great to have you on point of inquiry. Thank you for your time. 

My pleasure. Thanks so much, Chris. 

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Chris Mooney