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Speech on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Dominican University Science Center

by Huey D. Johnson

October 11, 2007

San Rafael, California

"If we can't trust our science, then where are we? How can we go forward?"1

Our time is a scientific age, and it has shaped each of us. Our collective American character is rooted in its search for truth and its moral attitudes have led us to respect centuries of scientific leaders. My personal character, too, is rooted in science, as I am trained as biologist and have worked for more than forty-five years in the environmental field.

Sound scientific information still has more integrity than almost any other aspect of our time. And Dominican University's new science center can stand firmly on it. Even so, this center faces a very different future than those that nurtured the scientific development of you in the audience. What constitutes sound scientific information continues to evolve, especially as nearly every issue of the day has a scientific component.

What do we know we know? How do we know it? How can we share and use our immense body of information? Who doesn't deserve the right to make decisions with clean, protected, and accurate science?

Since vast new areas of scientific knowledge arise and develop constantly, we are left to improvise-and succeed-with the new tools that have evolved alongside knowledge itself. I am reminded of just how rapidly the change has come when I recall the respected scientist René Dubos's comment that ecology was too complex a subject for humanity to ever understand. He died just before computers became a common and integral tool; something tells me that he, as one who methodically gathered data over months and years, would never have believed the speed at which scientific information moves today. Dubose would marvel that any freshman can create and use data instantly that would have previously taken years to develop. Still, Dubose's insights guide me and can be of use to us all as we face the future of science. This especially stays with me:

"The most pressing problems of humanity...involve relationships, communications, changes of trends-in other words, situations in which systems must be studied as a whole in all the complexity of their interactions. This is particularly true of human life. When life is considered only in its specialized functions, the outcome is a world emptied of meaning. To be fully relevant to life, science must deal with the responses of the total organism to the total environment."2

These days, new fields tend to be in applied science. Environmental science, which is my academic and career background, is one. In that discipline, as in myriad others, definitive questions swirl around the science, clouding it: what is science and what isn't? What's a legitimate use and whom can we believe? Sectors like computer and social science launch whole new spectrums of information. How can we respond to Dubose's "total organism" when it is so difficult to know the "total environment?"

When I was a student, both the labor of gathering information and the pioneers of scientific knowledge were sacrosanct. Now this has changed to a form of chaos in which no one can be sure if their information is science, politics, or advertising. Those using this new science center will face a much different situation than that for which they were trained. Of course, this is the nature of science, but the current pace of change is novel.

My own discovery that the universal understanding of what constitutes 'sound scientific information' had changed came in a personal, defining moment. Thinking back on it now, all I can say is: Good grief was I hammered! It was after five years of public service as a member of the California's Governor's Cabinet. Having been responsible for California's environment and natural resource policy, I left office determined to look around the world to see if any country was managing their resources better than we had been. I found several nations with impressive policies, including Norway, whose Environmental Minister deflected my enthusiasm to the Netherlands. "Don't be impressed with us; you'll find what you're looking for in Holland." He was right.

The Dutch had an environmental management goal of total environmental clean-up within twenty-five years. After my years in Sacramento, such a stark goal struck me as exactly what this state and country could learn from. I ended up visiting the country often and became a student of their process. I even found two other places that had a similar effort going: New Zealand and Singapore. The book that I eventually wrote about their uniquely integrated style of environmental management is titled Green Plans, now in its third edition.

What I found at the core of the Dutch Green Plan was a centralized information base used as the first and last source of information by government, industry and the public. The Dutch RIVM establishes a scientifically peer-reviewed standard database for the nation as a whole.3 Information is posted on the Internet and any one, individual, institution or business can simply check for the workability of their idea. Before they had that standard, Dutch scientists and policy makers worked in a condition of information chaos. Progress was bogged down in conflict and litigation, as we see now in the United States.

Though funded by government, scientists and others guard this data bank so that no special interest can tamper with the information. The RIVM's strength is that it streamlines the process of advancing government or business decisions. There is no bickering over regulation language, or even successful law suits that, in a system like ours, would persistently challenge the information base. This is the case because the Dutch RIVM stands as a pillar of integrity for the business, government, and public. As an unbiased foundation, it supports policy with information both before and after decisions are made law. It was clear to me that an information system such as theirs would be essential to any similar success in other nations; I wanted its strategy and form captured.

The defining moment came. We were in a long-awaited appointment in the RIVM Center. Its director, Dr. Von Egmond, a scientist with impeccable integrity, entered the room unsmiling. "Welcome," he said. Then he uttered a somber "I have a question: Why is U.S. science corrupt?"

I was guiding the group and the question was aimed at me. But I couldn't answer. I was shocked and speechless. I tried to quickly run through my memory to find a defense. But I could recall only experiences that confirmed his point. I was shocked into admitting I didn't know. The interview went well after that.

Part of his daily duty was to defend the central information bank against attempts to infiltrate or change it. It is challenged on occasion but holds up well. Amid the early challenges were those from U.S. oil companies who didn't like the idea of having to conform to the Netherlands' new environmental laws. Lobbying in the Dutch capital, they use American scientists hired to try to crack the center. The RIVM protected the integrity of its information, with the oil companies' attempts drawing only the ire of the RIVM's director.

I have reviewed that moment of my frantic memory search many times since. Like that director, my daily experience has not been in a hall of science, but in the give and take of policy and profit. I realized to some extent that Dr. Von Egmond was right. My personal, hallowed respect for science was shaken.

I would like to share several of the memories that ran through my mind that day. These are examples of many I could choose, each with its own subtle tactic. In many cases, I have found that science is for hire. Without a common bank of information such as that of the Netherlands, we are left with more corruption in and around science. To constantly challenge these practices involves not only litigation, but also personal courage and risk-taking, something I'd rather see put to good use in scientific practice.

Until it happened, I never thought I would have to face the purposeful use of fake statistical evidence to refute good research.

Not long after arriving to undertake my new job in the state capital, a staff team reported that they had been studying the affects of an agricultural chemical and had results to present. The results were simple enough; the team had found that the existing regulations on the presence of the pesticide were too lax. At my request, they had checked and double-checked the information. I was secure enough with the data to call my first public hearing. "Great," I said. "Lets have a hearing and tighten them down."

Several large chemical firms sent representatives to the hearing, most of whom were scientists specifically trained to represent their employers' version of the scientific facts. Those scientists proceeded to take the statistical evidence my impartial government team had put together and proceed to nit pick our report. They had visual point statistical evidence of their own. Their approach was pretty much to flip quickly through a stack of complicated visuals to illustrate their disagreements with our scientific information. The legislators in the room whose votes I needed to change the regulations appeared confused by the technical exchange. My proposal request was tabled for further study.

That wouldn't happen in a Dutch hearing. The basic data information used by both parties would come from the RIVM information bank, leaving little room for such shenanigans.

Several conclusions were evident right off the bat. The legislators didn't have enough up-to-the-minute scientific experience to understand the purposefully labyrinthine discussion of my opponent's design. The other point was political. Several of the legislators were from farm districts and they didn't want any tighter enforcement of regulations for fear of losing farmers' votes. It was the first of many lessons in political infighting. That vote and my loss were decided before we ever got to the hearing. At least it was educational. I needed to experience the purposeful warping of science by hired corporate scientists before I could hold my own and win some future debates.

The previous Secretary of Resources, on the other hand, had been considered friendly to the chemical industry. It became evident that, back then, there had been a certain political protocol: industry would go along with a compromise bill if the Secretary would sign off on any new agricultural chemicals proposed for use. Learning this, I simply stopped signing clearances for use. After a number were blocked in a Sacramento-style tangle, industry gave in to my requirements and I signed some of theirs-the ones my own team of scientists, the state team, passed. They, in turn, allowed most of mine to become policy.

While my record shows that I was never a friend to the chemical industry, I did get to know one of the chemical company executives in town years later. He served as a regional manager for Dow and as Dow's highest-ranking employee in California, was concerned about the environment. When I asked him why, he said that, like him, most Dow employees wanted to cooperate and improve Dow's environmental record. Employees would regularly suggest compromises that the company could take. Each time, the Vice President of Agriculture Chemicals back in the corporate headquarters would veto them. The agricultural profits were just too large and supported the entire company. He argued successfully that the job of the company was to make a profit, not cooperate in tightening regulations that would do the opposite. When scientific information speaks for itself, however, the political and regulatory battles can counterbalance the severity of the bottom line.

The story is not always between such distinct players as Dow Chemical and the State of California. In my time as Secretary of Resources, I faced dishonest acts from scientists within government. In one instance, the forest industry had convinced forest service employees to stuff a government database with questionable information so as to shift the debate surrounding a proposed policy change. When public commentary can make policy, a falsely popular item can have tremendous influence.

It was during the Carter years that the United States Forest Service decided to make final allocation decisions allowing the logging of millions of acres of public lands that had been festering in a decision making limbo. When proposed uses include parks and wilderness as well as logging acreage, the decisions are never fast-but they can be transparent.

An order came to the field office in California to stuff the information-faked or otherwise-into the Forest Service database which was to be used to determine the final use of millions of acres. We were made aware of the corruption because an honest Forest Service employee had delivered an unmarked, brown envelope to our door. With high-level Forest Service officials tending to favor industry in those years, the fraudulent data created a solid case for releasing almost all of the land to logging.

Part of the scam was that some environmentalists had cut a deal with the Forest Service that would have let millions of acres go in exchange for getting some acreage they particularly wanted preserved.

I disliked the approach and said so, further announcing that I intended to sue the Forest Service. Members of congress, including the Chair of the Public Lands Committee in the house, phoned me with dire warnings about such a suit. The Sierra Club representative visited me, asking me not to sue. He explained that rather than risk losing immense acreage they had cut a deal.

It was another lonely, defining moment for me. No one seemed willing to challenge a patently unethical process.

I sued-and luckily won. The Federal Government challenged the decision in a higher court and I won again, beating dishonest administrators and saving millions of acres for honorable management-and millions for wilderness preservation.

In the fight for the Klamath River and its fish population, Karl Rove's political pressure very likely led to a transfer of water rights from salmon populations to up-river farmers, already secure in water resources. The political conclusion led backwards to-and past-scientific data on the water flow requirements necessary to sustain salmon populations in the river.4

An information center would have exposed and countered the fraudulent rewrite of the study, but instead we are left with the resignation of an honorable scientist and drastically reduced native fish populations. 65,000 salmon and their future generations might have been protected had there been 'sound scientific information' shared by all. It is not too late to dismantle the skewed logic that starts with a political objective, twists scientific data to support the foregone conclusion, and then cites bad science with the credibility of compromised scientists.

The lack of clear and common information was again at issue when, as Secretary of Resources, I included improving the management of California's forest landscape among my priorities. At that time, the dean of the Forestry College at Berkeley was also the chair of the state forestry board and I requested that he come talk to me. My request met with a strange response, something more like a series of excuses: he was too busy, it was a new term, and so forth. I intensified my request to a demand and reminded him that I oversaw appointments to the board and helped determine University budgets, including his department's research funds.

Finally he came to see me, but he seemed very uncomfortable in the meeting. I requested that he brief me on the condition of the state's forests-a straightforward request given our roles. Several more meetings had taken place when I, somewhat exasperated, hammered him a bit. He looked stricken and said, "OK, I'll tell you the truth. We don't know the condition of the forests. We only do pure research that won't get us in trouble with the forest industry. If we did applied research like that we could be hurt by the timber industry. They have such a powerful lobby from their contributions in the state legislature that they can control the vote and affect our budget."

We both stared at the floor in embarrassed silence. And that wasn't the end of it. For years, money had been earmarked for the University and the Forestry Department to assess the condition of the forests, but he acknowledged that the funds had been used for something else. There were still other disclosures of questionable ethics. It was another instance of taxpayers getting shortchanged-and the absence of transparent scientific data made it virtually impossible to sort out.

Recent examples of scientific corruption covered by international press include topics as varied as the Endangered Species Act, suppressed health warnings for Katrina victims and workers, global climate data, the pharmaceutical industry and abuses of science at the FDA.5 Clearly, there is no one person to blame and no industry immune to corruption of scientific integrity. Since my experience has been in environmental policy, I'll offer one more personal example in order to point out that this problem of manipulating facts is as widespread as I've experienced.

In this case, I was involved in an action that was part of the competitive struggle between companies to determine government standards in a relevant area.

My first job out of college was with a division of Union Carbide. Amid my training experiences was an assignment to join a team that hoped to secure a change in federal government regulation that would have favored one of our products over that of the competition. I was with the group that called on our best customers in various states, appealing to them to send letters to their congressional representatives to support our contention. We had been informed that the product warranted special ruling based on facts.

There was some question about the facts, in this case, our facts, and our competitor's technical team quickly organized their own scientific data. Direct lobbying and who knows what else ensued. We won our request; the regulations changed; and soon Union Carbide dominated the niche market for that particular product.

Though I was doing well in my work and often promoted, that experience, along with several others like it, left me with no choice but to resign. I went on to spend several years wandering alone across the world, starting what was to become a life-long preoccupation with these matters.

Today I find myself asking some of the same questions. What, then, can we do to address the threat to the integrity of science and our institutions? In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists drafted a condemnation of political interference in science that went on to be signed by 12,000–plus scientists. Used to persuade the federal government to address issues of scientific integrity, it led to the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. For the first time, federal scientists and contractors have the right to expose political interference in their research without fear of retribution. The FDA Revitalization Act includes scientific integrity language. There has been action to increase transparency in the Office of Science and Technology policy as well as Executive Orders. Although these developments are to be celebrated, it is but another part of a piecemeal solution to this enormously complex problem.

I believe the Dutch have the answer in their RIVM. We, too, need a central information base to be used by all sides without bias. This would provide a standard that everyone would use for decision-making.6

In fact, when one contemplates what a standard could achieve, one sees the huge potential immediately. When standards have been set, science can return to its focus and move to discover the needed answer to any number of problems. The record shows that many scientific advances have occurred that wouldn't have otherwise been likely without such a focus point. I call this the 'Silverman Thesis' after a physicist friend, Richard Silberman, made the point that a standard can level the playing field and clarify objectives.

If information standards were established, these examples and many others like them would not be possible. In the environmental area where I have worked for decades, I have seen firsthand how scientific information is manipulated by the politics of profit. I have seen a leader and teacher compromise his integrity for dishonest lobby efforts and funding status quo. In the State of California chemical hearing, passage of harmful chemicals wouldn't have happened, the attempt to give away forests-millions of acres of public land-wouldn't have happened, lands developed on the basis of false information wouldn't have happened, and infighting between companies trying to manipulate government regulations wouldn't have happened. The Klamath's 65,000 dead salmon wouldn't have died.7

This new science center will help determine a different future-for science itself as well as the University. Among the many institutions and halls of science, one could take the long view and be the first to found a center that could tackle issues of scientific integrity. A Stanford or a Berkeley is not likely to free itself to embark on this kind of center, but a growing institution like Dominican University could lead the way.i

Imagine the possibility of a level playing field between science and business. Just as everyone operates under a tax code, business and science deserve clarity and equality as integral players in society. Furthermore, information standards could do away with burdensome and inefficient top-down regulations and penalties. This way, individuals from both industries could be spared experiences like those I've shared today.

In science as a whole, establishing such a standard for information will help cure the chaotic, destructive, corruption of information that undermines economic health, resource management, healthcare and nearly all aspects of our present lives. It is in this intersection of science and politics, profit and science, that there is the most to gain and lose. The daily practices, methodologies, discoveries, and successes that will define the life of this new science center must have a future in a community united by information and standards. Only then can we hope to know Dubose's "total environment" and educate generations to come.

1 Bonnie Durrance, private correspondence.

2 Dubos, René. So Human an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Surroundings and Events. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.

3 The National Institute for Health and Environment (RIVM) is an independent, government-funded research science institute that monitors and assesses, environmental and health conditions on a national and international level. RIVM develops methodologies and models for setting standards used to underscore the Netherlands' integrated policies, on a local and national level. Its scientists are experts in the fields of health, nutrition, environmental protection, risk assessment, and the connections between them.


5 For an exhaustive list of recent topics covered in the media, see:

6 Here I cite several goals from the statement 'Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,' signed by 12,000 scientists:

Ensure public access to government studies and the findings of scientific advisory panels. To maintain public trust in the credibility of the scientific, engineering and medical professions, and to restore scientific integrity in the formation and implementation of public policy, we call on our colleagues to: Bring the current situation to public attention; Request that the government return to the ethic and code of conduct which once fostered independent and objective scientific input into policy formation; and Advocate legislative, regulatory and administrative reforms that would ensure the acquisition and dissemination of independent and objective scientific analysis and advice.

i Such a new center could begin with a single fellow producing papers on the subject of scientific integrity. I have one such recently retired academic and environmental pioneer in mind: Steven Steinhour.

7 Estimates of the salmon die-off range between 65,000 and 77,000 adult salmon.

Posted on February 4, 2008 12:48 PM |


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