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February 10, 2005

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Yes, my wife, a scientist in the Department on Interior, can attest.

Many good scientists are retiring because of this and the coming budget cutbacks. Bush-voting Republican scientists are angry over this issue as well. Odd, that.

I have outrage fatigue. Time to go eat some farm-raised wild salmon to cheer myself up.

Hey, this is just balance for all those decades when they went overboard by reporting the facts.

Today's lesson in comparative history:

Nearly half of all respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings (44 percent) reported that they "have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species." One in five agency scientists revealed they have been instructed to compromise their scientific integrity—reporting that they have been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document," such as a biological opinion;
...
Under Lysenko's guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko's methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin's death.

I wouldn't go as far as Felixrayman on this, although my mind remains open, as the Bush Admininstration spreads these tactics across the government infrastructure.

The Republican Party has often said that government should be run like a business. This is how most businesses run things, and they are, under current rules, permitted to do so.

Government is not a business. I would hate to see government operations become as opaque as business operations on this matter of censoring employees. That is less freedom, not more. Unless there is a case to be made for exchanging one dictatorship (loose, loose term) for lots of little ones.

Also, government is not anything like my family sitting around the table prioritizing the bills. When my family runs into budget problems, the first thing we cut is war with the neighbors and the manufacturing of ersatz mentrual blood.

Bush-voting Republican scientists
There are Bush-voting Republican scientists? That is odd.

Thank you for this post. The Bush administration's attack on our environment is one of the most shameful aspects of a shameful administration. Our children and grandchildren will suffer from his policies. The other day a poster made a comment about the fascist aspects of this administration. The poster drew some fire for using exaggerated or inaccurate language. I submit that this administration has many of the characteristics of a fascist government; bullying and intimidation of people for expressings ideas contrary to the government's "party line" is one example.

this used to be one of my primary practice areas, so this is something i know a lot about.

first, the ESA is impossible to implement. The USFWS is supposed to issue biological opinions on governmental actions, deciding whether the action will jeopardize the continued existence of the species. Key problems with this statutory approach:

a. who the hell knows? Conservation biology is still in its infancy. And, the level of ignorance regarding most listed species is staggering.

b. how do you deal with cumulative impacts? No one project is likely to jeopardize an entire species (yes there are exceptions), but the USFWS doesn't know what the next project will be. The statute gives no particular guidance, so USFWS biologists essentially guess on a case-by-case basis how much mitigation they need to slice out of each developer to offset both the impacts of the project and cumulative impacts.

c. Listed species move, but human land use stays static. There is no effective means of dealing with this conflict.

Second, the critical habitat process has utterly overwhelmed the agency. The statute requires critical habitat be designated at the listing of the species, when the USFWS is just guessing at the species' ultimate needs. But certain enviro groups thought that getting c.h. designated would give the USFWS and the enviros better leverage. So lawsuits were filed and the USFWS was told by the courts to go designate c.h. They didn't want to do it and they didn't have the money to do it properly, so they did a lousy job. So business organizations sued on the new listings, and also won. So, USFWS is totally whipsawed. To make matters more complicated, certain regulations regarding what c.h. means were invalidated, so it's unclear how the Service is supposed to use the c.h. designations which are still standing.

third, a lot of USFWS biologists are TRUE believers -- development bad, nature good. I have used all the techniques mentioned in the post to get senior staff at the USFWS to listen to my client's version of the impacts of the project. My scientists weren't necessarily wrong simply because they were paid by a developer. Legitimate disagreements about a species' needs can exist. Yet every time a senior staffer overrules a junior biologist, he or she can complain that politics is infecting the process. Sometimes true; sometimes not.

fourth, it is certainly true that USFWS internal review has become much more politicized in the Bush admin. However, determining whether the statute has been violated (ie, that projects will actually jeopardize a species) requires a case-by-case analysis over a period of years, and comparison against a baseline which doesn't exist. How does one tell whether any one project caused a population to plummet? maybe the damn critter was doomed anyway due to other circumstances.

there's lots more to the story, but i'll stop here for now.

Francis

Yes, votermom, there are.

Recognize, particularly in the West, that many wildlife biologists, etc. are hunters and guns rights' advocates.
Some are also born-again Christians.

The ones I know who vote these single issues can't quite figure out the connection between those issues and their endangered research budgets, at least as far as seeing they voted for all three, and many others. That's what's odd.

My case here is that bogus issues such the endangered gun rights and one's religious affiliation are sand
thrown in the eyes of the electorate to accomplish the real goals, one small one of which is eviscerating government's role in protecting the environment.

And for those who will retort with the inevitable "government scientists will say anything to keep their research budgets growing", yes, some of that happens. Just as oncologists leap for joy when their patient's cancer returns.

You have absolutely no idea what this means, and neither do I. Any organization formed for the purpose of scientific study has some degree of control over the opinion expressed by that group. The alternative is that anyone including the janitorial staff can chime in and express opinions that run counter to those held by the more qualified staff. A more meaningful survey would be the population of senior staff who had experienced these things.

I've exercised such control, myself. I've had people working for me that attempted to communicate things that were absolutely inaccurate, in the presence of the customer. I quashed it. Does it mean I'm suppressing information? No, because information is composed of fact, and what the individuals in question were attempting to say was counterfactual.

And to be clear, I've also publicly corrected people who were up the food chain from me for the same reasons. I'd discount the survey data for the above reasons. The anecdotal information is a different thing, entirely.

Taking a look at the big picture, it's generally a bad idea to put science in the hands of the government, because eventually politics will intrude and take over. If you think the current military-industrial complex is bloated, consider what it'd look like if it became another government beaurocracy.

fdl's comments are legitimate as well. This stuff happens, too.

Balance is needed. Shutting up junior biologists is not the way to go.

True believers. Our plague. I truly believe that.

Fush? Don't you mean Fish?

True believers. Our plague. I truly believe that.

*cackle*

"The alternative is that anyone including the janitorial staff can chime in and express opinions that run counter to those held by the more qualified staff. "

This survey was done of scientists, not of janitors. I'd hope that the scientists were qualified to state their opinions.

"I've exercised such control, myself. I've had people working for me that attempted to communicate things that were absolutely inaccurate, in the presence of the customer. I quashed it."

This is not a private company, but the US government, which should be oriented towards openness. Secondly, the comments indicated that the scientists responding believed that it wasn't 'counterfacts' which were being squashed, but facts.

Is that the moe?

it's generally a bad idea to put science in the hands of the government, because eventually politics will intrude and take over.

Which private company is going to make a profit protecting the environment?

*cackle*

When in a plague, get infected. You might develop an immunity.

I'll settle for being merely funny, like that wag Coulter.

Or have I misinterpreted yet another cackle?

Make it a non-government, non-profit organization, heet. Give them a yearly stipend and make it a part of the mandatory budget. Take the control of the money and the science out of the hands of the USFWS altogether.

Secondly, the comments indicated that the scientists responding believed that it wasn't 'counterfacts' which were being squashed, but facts.

I just want you to consider that comment a bit longer, Barry. Do you think the people whose comments I quashed were attempting to mislead, or do you think that they believed what they were saying?

No, John, I think you got it right. But your joke was just as funny if it were a slip as it was for being deliberate. I wasn't sure which, but it didn't matter to the cackle-generator.

Just another example of Bsuh and crew using fraud to fashion government policy -- like the Social Security "crisis" or the budget numbers, or WMD and the Iraq war, etc.

The Lysenko analogy is most apt, although the motive for it is not scientific quackery but deliberate misrepresentation of fact to suit policy. These people are not nuts like Lysenko - just liars.

George Bush wants to put arsenic in your drinking water.

Slartibartfast:

Make it a non-government, non-profit organization, heet.

You mean, like a university?

Seriously, much as it'd do wonders for my self-importance to believe that only university researchers do worthwhile, unbiased science (being one myself), I have plentiful personal experience that it's not the case. My experience with both the federal and provincial geological surveys is that both employ first-class people who are perfectly free to speak their minds. They don't have the unrestricted choice of topic that we university types have, since their organizations have specific mandates, but that's hardly the same as saying that we can't trust their results.

Environmental policy is really hard; the public perceives risks radically differently from environmental risk specialists.

arsenic occurs naturally. the question is how much should be left in the water when it gets to your tap. Reducing arsenic to 3 ppb would cost over $700 million per year, with expected benefits of no more than $500 million per year. The 10 ppb standard has both costs and benefits at about $200 million annually.

How many people are you willing to kill? How much can water providers raise rates to cover the cost of compliance? As I said, environmental policy is hard.

Now, the mercury issue is really pretty bad.

Francis

Make it a non-government, non-profit organization, heet. Give them a yearly stipend and make it a part of the mandatory budget. Take the control of the money and the science out of the hands of the USFWS altogether.

This idea has merit but I'm afraid you'd still run into a problem of politics b/c the money is still handed out by a government. If the party in power changes, they'd be tempted to completely dump the organization the previous party used for such things...

Or was there another funding source? If you want to depend on private donations for such a thing, I think we'll be in big trouble though I'm sure the libertarians have a neato theory to prove me wrong.

Just a reminder to the Bush faithful: Flood geology won't find oil.

You mean, like a university?

No, universities don't typically pay the help (read: research assistants) very well.

If the party in power changes, they'd be tempted to completely dump the organization the previous party used for such things...

Which would be worse than spending the same amount of money and having the science possibly be obliterated by politics anyway, in what way? At least this way the decision to do away with the science part of it would be made publicly, via budget authority, instead of privately, via internal policy.

Just a reminder to the Bush faithful: Flood geology won't find oil.

Anyone here endorsing flood geology? No? Maybe that reminder was unnecessary after all.

Actually a belief in flood geology might help explain why George was so bad at finding oil. :)

George was looking for oil? Who knew?

Most oil companies hire geologists to do the looking.

Most oil companies hire geologists to do the looking

Why do that when you can just sell your share of the company before the bad news comes out about how poorly you've been running it and make millions while the shareholders lose money? Wouldn't that be easier?

Whenever I hear about the Union of Concerned Scientists I can't help picturing a group of people in lab coats sitting around frowning and drumming their fingers on their desks. Assuming they themselves do not have their own political agenda in all of this would be a mistake IMO.

Thanks fdl for an informative post.

Assuming they themselves do not have their own political agenda in all of this would be a mistake IMO.

Assuming everyone is (also) a party hack w/o scruples is a mistake IMO. This isn't a shot at you, I'm saying that most scientists are not in it to sway public opinion, gain political power, or get rich. This is in direct contrast to the politicos the scientists are complaining about. Who are you going to believe? This is also the reason I'd believe the (mostly) unbiased scientists versus the (certainly) biased energy industry on global warming.

I'm saying that most scientists are not in it to sway public opinion, gain political power, or get rich.

Agreed, which is why I think it's unfortunate that many environmental groups let their lawyers speak for them. I know a few prominent (for here, anyway) environmental lawyers, and none of them have even a rudimentary background in the hard sciences.

there is no such thing as an unbiased scientist. we're all human, right? pure researcher, govt-funded applied scientist, industry-funded, enviro group-funded . . . the very nature of the job will self-select for certain biases, which will be reinforced by a non-diverse workplace culture and further reinforced by a natural desire to serve the goals of the employer.

It is also the case that DOI (department of interior) scientists see themselves as being above politics (hah! not even true during the Clinton admin.) and because they see themselves as non-partisan, they are remarkably resistant to political oversight.

(i feel the need to resurrect my liberal creds.) However, if the stories about mercury and fish are true, it appears that the current admin has gone way beyond the acceptable scope of oversight. There are billions of dollars at stake surrounding refit of big midwest coal-burning power plants and big Western dams. It would not surprise me at all that the Bush admin is protecting the energy community against really expensive new regs. Some of the evidence appears to go beyond sour grapes and shows bad faith instead.

tomsyl: one reason you see so many lawyers speaking for the enviros is that lawyers created and lead these organizations. Also, the scientists do studies and submit comments on each others work; the lawyers bring the lawsuits that force the govt to change its policies. Both aspects are important but the press tends to give the lawyers more attention.

Francis

"Fush? Don't you mean Fish?"

Perhaps the agency has been taken over by New Zealanders.

(A joke for the benefit of your millions of Australasian readers.)

Francis,

Thanks for a remarkable non-partisan insider view.

My sister is a professional environmental biologist (she works in a university, at the post-doc level these days) and has talked with me at great length about the intersection of her field and politics.

One fundamental methodological problem that you identify well is that ecologists are professionally unequipped to make political concessions. It's not their job, really. They can measure human impact on the environment or the changed environment's impact on humans, but it's really up to the politicians to decide to what extent a particular compromise is acceptable. The scientists have opinions, of course, but their primary job is to produce scientific results. (Bias might intrude in a couple of ways: what scientists choose to measure, and how they frame the importance of their results.)

My sister isn't a fanatic although she is certainly concerned about the uncontrolled human impact on our environment. Her major worry about the way political (and legal) decisions are being made is that the decision-makers do not understand the science. She was appalled by the Christine Todd Whitman's nomination to the EPA, not because Whitman's record on environmentalism was bad but because Whitman had no perceptible background in science.

This professional gap between scientists and politicians has of course existed for a long time, but, as you note, it has gotten worse over the past few years. The two professions always spoke a slightly different language with different a prioris, but now communication has been almost entirely severed.

It goes almost without saying that the ideological education of science will exacerbate this problem.

Jackmormon: what bothers me about all of this is that I don't think that the scientists should have to make political concessions. They should ascertain the facts. Once they have done so, the political appointees (or whoever) can decide what to do about them. But to ask them to falsify their findings undercuts the whole process.

I should say (in response to e.g. Slarti) that since this comes against a backdrop of all sorts of previous administration interference with scientific bodies of various kinds, I'm disposed to believe it.

Hilzoy,

I agree with you that the scientists should not do politics. Their job is to make scientific finding. Politicians make concessions; they have to balance interests in the present and for the future. The problem I hoped to underscore is that very few politicians are fluent in science.

Understanding the more general implications of a carefully limited scientific study requires some knowledge; being able to apply to a local political community the general knowledge of a scientic field requires some knowledge. Both require a great deal of political courage--but more importantly, they require an understanding of how scientific findings work.

What I'm arguing for more than anything else is a more general scientific education. Those who will make political decisions should have their specific poli-sci educations, but they should have some exposure to scientific thought and method.

And I have to say that whoever is promoted to the head of the EPA should be professionally qualified to moderate between the scientists, the lawyers, and the politicians. It's not an impossible combination, though perhaps politically difficult, at least under current conditions.

Still, I don't think it too much to ask that the political operatives at the EPA have some scientific background. The pure scientists will then be able to pursue their research with the confidence that their results need not be spun for the benefit of ignoranmuses.

I began a response last night, but it rambled and meandered, so into the bit bucket it went.

Hilzoy, my point is that you have no idea who it was that griped on the survey. UCS' website said they got 30% response from 1400 people, 44 percent of whom claimed to have been...diverted, for want of a better word. Now, this works out to about 185 people. My point is that you have no idea who these 185 people are. If they're subject matter experts (possibly abusing a definition here), that looks bad. If they're not, you've probably got a case of frustrated lower ranks taking an opportunity to vent.

I've participated in surveys kind of like this before. Once. Right after I'd found out that my first year back at the company was going to go unaccompanied by any wage adjustment. Mightily pissed, I said that the company was unethical in its treatment of me and in its failure to communicate. Each year since then, the opportunity to participate in the survey arose, but I didn't participate. Why not? Because I was no longer unhappy. Surveys like this can be unreliable, I say, because it just might be that the people who are responding are not the people you want to be paying attention to. The point is, you don't know. And if UCS knows, they're not sharing as far as I can tell.

Oh, but wait! It's not 44% of the 30% of 1400. It's 44% of the 70.3% of the 30% of 1400, or about 130 people. So, of the entire population surveyed, 130 people said they'd been directed to refrain from making jeopardy findings. Of those 130 people, 15 said this had happened frequently, 59 said occasionally, and the rest said seldom. If I'd been directed to do things that went counter to what I know is right, I'd make damned sure to fill out this survey, wouldn't you?

And of all of the respondents, sixty percent said the USFWS reports relied on on the best available science. 100% would be ideal, but getting more than half of scientists to agree on what's the best available science would be pretty hard, I'd think, especially when this opinion is effectively expressed privately. Again, not saying all is rosy over there, just saying the degree to which it's un-rosy is unclear, looking at the survey.

It's the latter part of the survey that's disturbing. What it in effect says is that their findings are being controverted to a large degree by beaurocrats, Congress, and industry. And the number of people who are saying this, depending on who's doing the meddling, runs from about half to upward of 70%. It's this part that I find disturbing. It's not so much an internal problem as much as what happens to the science after it's reported.

Prof. Hilzoy:

as the expression goes, the devil is in the details. and given who was conducting the survey, it was most likely to flush out the most dissatisfied.

to get technical, section 7 of the ESA requires that every federal agency conducting an action which may adversely affect listed species or critical habitat "consult" with the USFWS (and NMFS, for certain kinds of fish, but that gets really obscure). USFWS writes a "biological opinion" which must reach a conclusion as to whether the federal action is likely to "jeopardize" the listed species. If a "jeopardy" conclusion is reached, the project must be redesigned. if a "no jeopardy" conclusion is reached, the project can go forward.

as pointed out in my earlier post, who the hell knows if a project causes jeopardy? The jeopardy determination is part science, part law, part politics. Moreover, early drafts of biological opinions tend to be prepared by the more junior biologists. Even in a conservative administration, they tend to be more ideological in the direction of environmental preservation.

My point, simply, is that this kind of survey doesn't reveal the extent to which more senior USFWS biologists are reversing draft jeopardy determinations based on legitimate scientific disagreement and the extent to which it is pure power politics.

Raw exercises of political power are rare in this arena; there are lots of good environmental firms out there, and biological opinions can be challenged under the ESA and APA (Administrative Procedure Act). If the administrative record does not contain adequate support for the no jeopardy determination, a court will invalidate it.

If the lawyers are doing their jobs right, there will be enough legitimate science in the record to support a range of conclusions, including the desired one. That's the job of lawyers like me. Frankly i was surprised to see that only 56% knew of "inappropriate" inducement by commercial interests; i thought it would have been higher. (again, that's what i do.)

one final point: USFWS biologists have whistleblower protections. they can also leak (and have) to enviro groups like, in California, Sierra Club, NRDC, EPIC, Center for Bio. Diversity. If a really raw deal is being done, word gets out.

please note that i'm talking only about the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The EPA is a completely different agency with a completely different set of statutes to enforce. Politicking in that agency can kill people -- regs. on mercury, arsenic, perchlorate [my newest speciality] and other chemicals decides how many people will die yearly from contaminants in the air we breathe and water we drink.

Francis

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