New report sheds light on an alarming trend: Government muzzling scientists


It’s getting harder and harder to be a scientist in America these days — especially if you work for, or work with the federal government, or if you cross one of the favored companies of our political leaders. We encountered this first-hand as we tried to investigate the BP oil spill and its aftermath here in the Gulf. Scientific experts who dared contradict the rosiest scenarios came in for a rough time.

Back in September 2010, two of the outstanding scientists who did research on behalf of my law firm — Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist, and Marco Kaltofen, the head of Boston Chemical Data in Massachusetts — started receiving unsettling calls from government attorneys after they reported finding disturbing levels of potentially toxic hydrocarbons in seafood. Instead of embracing their research, lawyers from the National Oil Spill Commission suggested they’d performed the research without proper permits; one said he was acting on a complaint from a major seafood distributor. The lawyers backed off after the calls were reported in the media, but the episode certainly suggested a government more interested in appeasing the powerful than in independent, untainted science.

That was hardly an isolated incident. The pressure on scientists is enormous; shortly after the spill in July 2010, the prestigious American Association of University Professors went public with allegations that BP was trying to buy the silence of scientists across the Gulf region by dangling research grants with highly restrictive conditions. Likewise, the New York Times has reported that before the BP spill a federal agency — the Minerals Management Service — routinely pressured its internal scientists to downplay findings that offshore drilling in the Gulf or the Arctic region posed any type of threat to the environment or to wildlife.

So the tragedy is that this kind of thing happens all the time, and the problem goes well beyond the environmental matters that we tend to focus on in this blog. A couple of days ago, the New York Times had a blockbuster new report on a different federal agency — the Food and Drug Administration — that allegedly took harassment of scientists to a higher level:

WASHINGTON — A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists used an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.

What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.

This level of harassment is highly disturbing, but it also may have helped to put patients at risk:

The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter dispute lasting years between the scientists and their bosses at the F.D.A. over the scientists’ claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.

A confidential government review in May by the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with the grievances of government workers, found that the scientists’ medical claims were valid enough to warrant a full investigation into what it termed “a substantial and specific danger to public safety.”

We have a powerful player in the industry, GE Healthcare, that was manufacturing these risky devices. As a lawyer who’s been handling radiation cases for more than two decades, I find it alarming — although at the same time not surprising — that the regulators were not focused on the apparent hazards of these products. The exposure to unnecessarily high levels of radiation is placing these patients at risk for major health problems down the road.

But the broader issue here is one that should deeply concern us all. Whether the issue is the effects of the BP oil spill, or the lingering impact of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan, or this troubling case of patients exposed to radiation in testing, the same issue arises again and again. We need ethical and unbiased research, where scientists are allowed to follow the evidence, even if their ultimate findings are not what the politicians and their powerful allies in big business want to hear. We need to stand up for truth in science, and fight back against the efforts to crush independent science. Not only can America handle the truth, but our health and safety depends upon it.

To learn more about the pressure on my team of scientists who were investigating the BP oil spill in 2010, please read:

To read the blockbuster New York Times report on the FDA spying on its own scientists, go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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