Suppression of Environmental Science

Article excerpt


There is a long history of attacks on scientists. During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church charged Galileo with heresy and, after imprisonment and threats of torture, forced him to renounce his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.1 In the 1950s, politicians sought to silence scientists that allegedly held political views sympathetic to Communists.2

In recent years, research results, rather than the scientist's religion or politics, have motivated attacks on scientists. As environmental issues grow in economic significance and as science takes on increasing importance in influencing public opinion and resolving environmental policy debates, suppression of environmental science has become "increasingly common."3 As one author observed, the power of science to legitimate environmental positions by claiming exclusive truth makes ownership of science "one of the most contested issues in modern environmentalism."4 In addition, as university dependence upon industry financial support for research on environmental science becomes more widespread, the scientific freedom of university researchers to pursue research activities and communicate research results is increasingly at risk.5

Environmental scientists have always had to answer questions about their methods, data, assumptions, and conclusions, and rightfully so, since it is the nature of science to exchange and question research results.6 Because scientific research and judgments by scientists are not always free of outside influences, a healthy scientific debate may also include inquiries about a researcher's motives, biases, and values.7 Not content with determining issues of environmental science through an open discussion over scientific methods and values, some have gone beyond debate and sought to silence certain scientists or their scientific work.8 By attacking the scientist who brings a contrary message, these attackers seek to prevent the scientist's work or, at the very least, to delay or detract the scientist from focusing on the unwelcome research project, to reduce the credibility of the researcher and her work, or to send a warning signal to other scientists about the adverse consequences that may result if they engage in similar unwelcome work.

Suppression of environmental science raises serious concerns about scientific freedom and threatens public health and the environment. Because science, and the advancement of scientific issues and methods, depends on the free and open exchange of research and ideas, suppression of science may result in delays or wasteful repetition of research.9 Similarly, where suppression of environmental science results in the failure or delay of scientists or government regulators to gain information about harmful activities, public health and the environment may be negatively impacted.10

This Article examines the phenomenon of suppression of environmental science and how the legal system addresses, or fails to address, such suppression. Part II describes the scope and methods of suppression of environmental science, examining both anecdotal evidence and surveys of scientists. Part III examines some of the laws relating to suppression of environmental science, in particular laws relating to defamation, research misconduct, and employer retaliation against employees who speak out. It analyzes both the ways laws are used to suppress scientific speech and ways they may be used to protect and promote such speech. Part IV recommends more effective legal remedies to protect scientists and prevent suppression. Finally, Part V concludes that greater professional efforts, including the support of institutions and professional societies, are necessary to deter the suppression of environmental science.


The International Society of Environmental Epidemiologists ("ISEE") defines research suppression as obstructing the study or release of scientific findings for reasons other than a concern for scientific validity or objectivity. …