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Bush's Stealth Attacks

by Laura Wright

Industry "experts" give the environment an ugly makeover

Every day the federal government receives a vast amount of scientific advice from appointed experts and advisory groups who help manage the technical complexities of our public affairs. Almost 1,000 official advisory committees guide scientific policy at the federal agencies alone; the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 250 such groups. Although we have laws -- most prominently, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA -- intended to protect the integrity of that process, they have been shamelessly flouted under the current administration.

Many scientists are alarmed. Among them is Lewis Branscomb, director of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology) under President Nixon. He has advised in various capacities Presidents Johnson, Carter, and Reagan, and although he has seen abuses before, he says he's never seen such widespread interference with science. "Some cases are so egregious that there's just no way to excuse them," Branscomb says. When the White House asks scientists for advice, "it's clear that the administration already knows what it wants the answer to be," he says. "What's different about the current situation is the pervasive pattern."

In the shadows of the vast federal bureaucracy, science is taking a beating from industry. Advisory panels are stacked with corporate shills. Industry groups pose as scientific committees. These practices certainly violate the spirit of FACA, operating as they do in the gray margins of the law and sometimes crossing the limits of legality. Above are but a few examples of such malfeasance -- obscured from public view, but with visible effects on human and environmental health.


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OnEarth's new associate editor, Laura Wright, joins the staff following several weeks of reporting in the southernmost reaches of New Zealand. She has also written about science and technology for Discover and Scientific American.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council