Republicans Attack the Obama Administration…. on science?

If you haven’t read this yet, prepare to have your brain melted.

This letter caused me a lot of incoherent sputtering this morning.

First, I’d like to address the specific claims made by Senators Inhofe and Vitter and Congressman Issa, then I’d like to say a few words about the main premise of the letter itself.

I’ll go through this section by section. What I have to say here is the result of me spending some quality time with Dr. Google. My findings are not necessarily definitive, or complete. So if you dredge up any points that I’ve missed or gotten wrong – or have arcane knowledge that I manifestly do not possess – please let me know and I’ll add any new facts to the pile and swiftly correct mistakes.

Inspector General Investigation of the National Academy of Engineers Report

The criticism here is in regards to the report Secretary Salazar used to justify the six month moratorium on deepwater drilling following the blowout at the Macondo well that ultimately spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I do not have a link to the report, but rather the Investigative Report, Federal Moratorium on Deepwater Drilling, US Department of Interior, which responds to criticism of the original report.

The Republican letter implies that there was misconduct in the report, because scientific peer review for findings was claimed where none existed.

From the IG’s report:

All DOl officials interviewed stated that it was not their intention to imply that the moratorium had been peer reviewed by the experts, and that when the experts’ concern was brought to their attention, they promptly issued an apology to the experts via conference call, letter, and personal meeting.

And:

All DOI officials interviewed stated that it was never their intention to imply the moratorium was peer reviewed by the experts, but rather rushed editing of the Executive Summary by DOI and the White House resulted in this implication. After reviewing different drafts of the Executive Summary that were exchanged between DOI and the White House prior to its final issuance, the OIG determined that the White House edit of the original DOI draft Executive Summary led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed by the experts.

So basically, the Inspector General’s report says that any implication that there was peer review – and it was only an implication, not a stated fact – was a mistake that the preparers of the report freely owned up to and apologized for.

Also from the IG report, in regards to the complaint that information quality assurance was violated:

While the 30-Day Report’s Executive Summary could have been more clearly worded, the Department has not definitively violated the IQA. For example, the recommendation for a moratorium is not contained in the safety report itself. Furthermore, the Executive Summary does not indicate that the peer reviewers approved any of the Report’s recommendations. The Department also appears to have adequately remedied the IQA concerns by communicating directly with the experts, offering a formal apology, and publicly clarifying the nature of the peer review.

The Republican letter also alleges blatant political influence. Having read the Inspector General’s report, that’s a baseless accusation on their part.

I will note that the Inspector General’s report was requested by Senator David Vitter (and Congressman Steve Scalise). To be honest, after reading through the entire thing, I wonder if Senator Vitter is just feeling a little aggravated that the Inspector General didn’t find the steaming heaps of politicized scientific misconduct he was desperately hoping for. What’s in the Republican letter reads like a mountain being made from a mole hill.

National Research Council Review of IRIS Formaldehyde Assessment (EPA)

The NRC’s review can be found here if you’d like to read it yourself.

This seems to be the most damning part of the NRC’s review:

The report finds that EPA supports its conclusions that formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; lesions in the respiratory tract; and genetic mutations at high concentrations. Furthermore, the report finds that the evidence is sufficient for EPA to conclude that formaldehyde exposures are a cause of cancers of the nose, nasal cavity, and upper throat. However, the draft assessment has not adequately supported its conclusions that formaldehyde causes other cancers of the respiratory tract, leukemia, or several other noncancer health outcomes. Also, the assessment should consider additional studies to derive noncancer reference concentrations (RfCs), which are estimates of lifetime concentrations to which someone could be exposed without appreciable risk of particular adverse health effects.

This one is a little less clear cut, I think. The NRC makes valid points about the EPA overstating the research to pin leukemia on formaldehyde, for example. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde in group 2A, which means “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This is generally not the same as “you will get leukemia.”

Here’s a news article that has the rainbow of reactions in black and white. The Sierra Club is disappointed. Industry groups are happy. And Senator Vitter is quoted as saying:

“I’m extremely glad I fought so hard for this review by the National Academy of Sciences, which really is the gold standard in terms of scientific assessment,” Vitter said. “It confirms what I feared — serious shortcomings and bias at the EPA. Louisiana citizens should be able to count on EPA conclusions and advice. This study shows that we can’t.”

Which I think is a very nicely crafted attack, since it implies that the EPA is completely unreliable instead of overcautious, which seems to be the case here.

Personally, I’d rather agencies were too cautious about health risks than not cautious enough. Though that is no excuse for a lack of scientific rigor.

US District Judge Oliver Wanger’s Decision Criticizing Agency Scientific Work and Testimony in Federal Court

I find it rather curious that the source cited in regards to lives and local economies being ruined is an opinion piece: California’s Man-Made Drought, The green war against San Joaquin Valley Farmers

The snide tone of that particular opinion piece notwithstanding (because hey, I’m not going to begrudge someone a bit of snideness when I revel in it myself!) the job losses seem to be more about drought than pumping restrictions. (Estimated 16,000 jobs lost due to drought, 5,000 due to the restrictions.)

However, the rest of the points in the Republican letter are a bit more difficult to tackle. If you’d like to read the entirety of the judge’s opinion here it is, and I’d recommend you put on your asbestos underwear first, because it’s a doozy. Judge Wanger has some very nasty things to say about the scientists in this case, the juiciest bits of which are cited in the letter to the Administration.

This is where it gets muddy, I think. Judge Wanger has apparently faced some criticism:

But at times, Poole said, Wanger has gone too far. “We have argued in certain cases … that he has basically made scientific calls when there’s a dispute between scientists that are improper for him to make” under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. “He shouldn’t be the arbitrator for scientific disputes. Congress has given that role to the expert agencies.”

I haven’t been able to find any detailed information about the testimony given by the two scientists. So at this point, I feel like it devolves into a he-said she-said, where Judge Wanger feels that the witnesses are not credible, and the EPA says it continues to support their findings. I’ve found several articles that have questioned Judge Wanger’s accusations that the scientists are contradictory on the grounds that he has mistaken scientific uncertainty for attempted deceit. I really can’t say one way or the other.

For more information on the issue at hand, I found this post helpful.

GAO Report on Yucca Mountain and IG Investigations into the Actions of DOE Secretary Chu and NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko

In this case, the NRC is the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, NOT the National Research Council.

The GAO report on Yucca Mountain can be found here.

I have little to say about the Yucca Mountain criticism, because FSM help me, I actually kind of agree.

The attack on Chairman Gregory Jaczko has me rather floored, though. Specifically in regard to his recommendations for evacuating Americans in a fifty mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima is still really an ongoing thing, and will be for years to come. In March, radiation levels at 60km were hitting the threshold for increased cancer risk. The Japanese government has faced very strong criticism for redefining safety levels of radiation in proximity to the plant. In April, high radiation levels were being found outside the 10 km evacuation zone.

What just boggles my mind is that Chairman Jaczko is basically being attacked for taking a “better safe than sorry” approach to a nuclear disaster. One can only wonder what the reaction would have been if he’d just stuck with the evacuation zone that the Japanese government had drawn.

But really, this is all beside the point.

Public trust in federal scientific work is waning and the academic community has gone so far as to call the situation a “crisis.” Accordingly, we request that you provide us with an accounting of your activities in response to serious questions raised about the quality of science utilized by this Administration.

Looking over the list of issues in the Republican letter, one thing struck me the most – scale. They want to talk about public trust in scientific work? I’d be curious to know how many people outside of the San Jaoquin valley – and outside of those that have a serious hate on for the EPA – knew about Judge Wanger and the never-ending delta smelt war? How many people have had their trust of science scarred by the EPA overstepping and placing leukemia risk in a report about formaldehyde instead of just sticking to nasal cancer? How many people had their trust in the government shaken by Chairman Jaczka recommending Americans not remain within 50 miles of the meltdown at Fukushima instead of a more modest 20 miles?

I am not in any way saying that scientific misconduct – whether it involves overstating one’s case or acting with too much haste – is acceptable. (Though sometimes in the intersection of science and policy, haste is required and mistakes are made.) But I think I am well within my rights to talk about scale.

What hurts the public trust of science more? The DOI erroneously implying that something had been peer reviewed when it hadn’t, or Senator Inhofe calling climate change (and thus the robust science backing it), “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people“?

What hurts the public trust of science more? Judge Wanger calling Dr. Jennifer Norris a zealot, or Congressman Issa dogpiling on the Climate-gate-that-wasn’t and saying, “It’s very clear that an inconvenient truth has been replaced by a convenient lie – we’d like to get to the bottom of the lie.”?

What hurts public trust of science more? The EPA insufficiently documenting its methodology, or Senator Vitter stating, “I do not think the science clearly supports global warming theory“? Or perhaps Senator Vitter trying (and thankfully failing) to quietly earmark money for an anti-evolution group?

What hurts public trust of science more?

The hypocrisy fills me with rage.

The shear sack required for these men to continually attack biology and climate science then set themselves up as “defenders” of science to score a few cheap political points, is breathtaking.

With “friends” like these, enemies need not apply.

At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has previously had a lot to say about these newly-minted defenders of federal science:
Vitter: Fail
Deniers abuse power to attack climate scientists
A firehose of global warming news, both good and bad

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