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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Scientist Whistle Blowers

Air Date: Week of September 11, 1998

Picture a ransacked office with open files strewn across the floor, and boxes for computer discs overturned and empty. Imagine the interrogations and threatening phone calls that might have led up to the break-in. Now, envision that scientists are the victims of the incident, and federal bureaucrats are the alleged perpetrators. In "Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth", writer Todd Wilkinson uncovers eight stories of government scientists whose research was allegedly suppressed by their employers; including the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Steve Curwood spoke with author Wilkinson, who began by telling the story of grizzly bear biologist, Dave Mattson.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Picture a ransacked office with open files strewn across the floor and boxes for computer disks overturned and empty. Imagine the interrogations and threatening phone calls that might have led up to the break-in. Now, envision that scientists are the victims of the incident and Federal bureaucrats are the alleged perpetrators. In Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth, writer Todd Wilkinson uncovers 8 stories of government scientists whose research was allegedly suppressed by their employers, including the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. I spoke with Mr. Wilkinson, who began by telling me the story of grizzly bear biologist Dave Mattson.

WILKINSON: Roughly, 5 years ago, Dave came to work one morning and discovered that his office had been raided, that all of his data had been confiscated, and that the person behind it happened to be one of his superiors, who seized the information because he didn't like the fact that Dave was using some of his own data to criticize the policy of the government, which today looks as though it is leaning towards delisting the grizzly bear beginning as early as next year.

CURWOOD: Now, what's this dissent that he voiced?

WILKINSON: Dave and an independent scientist named Craig Pease published an article in which they assert that the dispersal of bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem may be due to the fact that there are threats to natural food sources, and thus that because bears aren't able to access these foods in Yellowstone, that they're roaming wider. The flip side to that coin is that the government then uses wider-roaming grizzlies as a justification for looking at taking the grizzly off the list of threatened species.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, his argument is that the bears aren't necessarily in better shape. They're engaged in some desperation measures that make it look like they might be in better shape.

WILKINSON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Now, you're a journalist, Todd Wilkinson. You're not a scientist. So, how can you say for sure that Dave Mattson's data is more accurate than what the committee is now saying should be done in Yellowstone?

WILKINSON: Well, I think we can point to a couple things. One is that Dave Mattson has published more peer-reviewed scientific journal articles than any of his colleagues. In other words, he has survived the red-face test under careful scrutiny of both independent scientists and the government. But I think the second thing, and perhaps the most important thing, is that even Dave Mattson acknowledges that he may be wrong with a few of his assertions. The problem is that the government doesn't allow him to voice dissent, and in fact, whenever he does voice dissent they take action to punish him.

CURWOOD: Does his experience represent the exception these days in terms of environmental scientists working for government agencies? Or is it fairly common?

WILKINSON: What has happened to Dave Mattson, while that might be an extreme example, scientific suppression, retaliation against people who differ with the bureaucratic status quo, I think it's a fairly common thing going on in many of these Federal agencies.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose that's happening?

WILKINSON: You can look at the grizzly bear as an example. One thing is, you have surrounding states that are tired of dealing with regulations relating to grizzly bear protection. They would like to have public lands open for oil and gas development, for example; to make sure that lands stay open for livestock grazing; to reduce any potential restrictions on mining. And it's also clear that Bruce Babbitt earlier this year, in announcing that he wants to move toward delisting 30 species, that he wants to use delisting as a stage for suggesting that the Endangered Species Act works, as Congress now debates its reauthorization.

CURWOOD: Recently, Representative Don Young of Alaska called for an investigation of Justice Department employees to find out which of them are members of environmental groups. He's also investigated Forest Service employees. Do you call this environmental McCarthyism?

WILKINSON: If anyone doubts the atmosphere of repression, the atmosphere of intimidation that exists in the Federal agencies, all they need to do is look at Congressman Young's letter, which he sent to regional forester Eleanor Towns in July. In that letter, he asked the forester if she could identify or knew of any employees working for the Forest Service, who had memberships in environmental organizations, the assertion being that anyone on their own time, at their own expense, paying membership dues to environmental organizations, were somehow subversive. And in the book, there is an example in which Jeff Van Ee, an employee with the Environmental Protection Agency, was threatened with fines, jail time, and firing from the Justice Department and the EPA for holding membership with the Sierra Club and being active with it on weekends.

CURWOOD: Well, is this McCarthyism, though? I mean, let's say that a Justice Department lawyer was covering stock transactions; that's something that's in the news these days. Would it be appropriate for that Justice Department lawyer to own stock in the company that they were investigating?

WILKINSON: Well, there seems to be a double standard here. On the one hand, you have Congressman Young, who presides over the Committee on Resources, wondering if Federal employees hold memberships in environmental organizations. And yet his own committee has former timber industry and mining industry lobbyists working for him, helping to write laws and helping to set natural resource policy. If that isn't calling the kettle black, I don't know what is.

CURWOOD: Todd Wilkinson writes for the Christian Science Monitor, and he's author of Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth.

 

 

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