"Dangers of privatization"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Thursday, July 31, 2003 at 12:18PM :

Nature 424, 473 (31 July 2003)

Dangers of privatization

The Bush administration's drive to contract out services is a threat to science.

At major US archaeological centres, the buzz at this time of year is typically about some exciting discovery of America's past uncovered on a summer dig. But visitors this year to the Midwest Archaeological Centre in Lincoln, Nebraska, and to the Southeast Archaeological Centre in Tallahassee, Florida, will encounter gloom. These institutions, which for decades have provided archaeological analysis for the US National Park Service and other agencies, may be entering their final days.

The two centres have found themselves among the targets of a plan by the President George W. Bush's administration to privatize as many federal jobs as possible before the November 2004 election (see page 478). The centres serve as premier resources for federal land management, but their advocates fear that they are being privatized precisely because of their wealth of expertise: their studies may delay or halt mining, logging or road-building.

Republicans deny that there is an ideological game afoot, only moves towards more efficiency. But recent experiences invite scepticism. During the process of analysing which jobs might be privatized, a consultant told government administrators that the archaeologists shouldn't be considered for privatization, as the centres' annual budgets are largely based on competitively secured projects. In other words, this is already lean science. But the consultant was told to keep his head down and avoid talking to congressional offices. A Republican Congressman from Nebraska described this appropriately as "a bean-counter doing something senseless".

An official at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told Nature that they have to consider archaeologists to be the same as laundry workers not a sentiment likely to inspire confidence among Nature's readership. The OMB, after all, is the driving force behind the administration's privatization plans. Alarm bells should be sounding: the administration's zeal does not bode well for other agencies, with many scientists facing various degrees of privatization, including the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last week, administration officials backed away from some of their harsher privatization methods in the face of congressional opposition. Congress must continue to expose the Bush administration's privatization plans to tough scrutiny.

Nature 424, 478 (31 July 2003)

US researchers fear job losses from privatization drive


[SAN DIEGO] US scientists have reacted anxiously to a government plan to contract out federal scientific projects, citing fears that the scheme could damage research. The plan met stiff opposition in Congress earlier this month, but the Bush administration wants to implement it before the November 2004 presidential election.

The administration's plan involves contracting out about 425,000 federal jobs, which may include hundreds of researchers. Under the scheme, private firms with scientific staff might perform research that is now conducted by government scientists. Administration officials say that privatizing jobs will save money and increase efficiency.

The scheme hit problems on 17 July, when the House of Representatives voted to block plans to privatize two National Park Service regional archaeology centres, involving 100 staff. Researchers at the Midwest Archeological Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee, Florida, have been carrying out cultural studies on public and private lands for more than 30 years.

But further disputes are expected in the coming weeks, as congressional hearings for the 2004 financial-year budget discuss privatization in other agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One union official at the EPA says he fears that 150 jobs in his 1,000-member chapter could be privatized. The NIH is already studying how to outsource almost 1,000 jobs in the 2004 fiscal year.

Critics of the plan say that staff whose positions are privatized could lose their jobs if they are not re-employed by the private firm that takes over. Others add that private companies could be more willing to bow to political pressure over controversial research. "When you replace government scientists with private ones, the latter are more likely to pull their punches, and not raise or address sensitive issues," says Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based pressure group that promotes government accountability.

2003 Nature Publishing Group

-- Sadie
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