Science, computer models and politics

In politics all it requires is a little tweak of the computer model, perhaps a change in the units of analysis, and you get the result that the politicians want.

From: Ecological Society of America: grants, jobs, news
Subject: Survey: political intervention in science pervasive at USFWS

Hello everyone,
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held a press conference to announce the disturbing results of a survey of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field scientists: political intervention to alter scientific findings has become pervasive within the agency. At field offices around the country, USFWS scientists tell of being asked to change scientific information, remove scientific facts or come to conclusions that are not supported by the science. As a result, the scientists say, endangered and threatened wildlife are not being protected as intended by the Endangered Species Act.

Despite agency directives to scientists not to reply to the survey even on their own time nearly 30% of the scientists responded. You can find a summary of the survey, its methodology, and a summary of results broken down by region here or by clicking here.

The survey paints a vivid picture of the systemic abuse of science and the need for change. Results show that:

Large numbers of agency scientists reported political interference in scientific determinations. Nearly half of all respondents whose work is related to endangered species (44%) report that they have been directed for nonscientific reasons to refrain from making findings that protect species. One in five 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.” In the Southwest region, that number was even higher -closer to one in three.

Agency scientists reported being afraid to speak frankly about issues and felt constrained in their role as scientists. 42% said they could not publicly express “concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation,” while 30% were afraid to do so even within the agency. A third felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists.

There has been a significant strain on staff morale. Half of all scientists reported that morale is poor to extremely poor; only 12% believed morale to be good or excellent. And 64% did not feel the agency is moving in the right direction.

Political intrusion has undermined the USFWS’s ability to fulfill its mission of protecting wildlife from extinction. Three out of four staff scientists felt that the USFWS is not “acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats.”

In one of numerous essays submitted on the topic of improving scientific integrity at USFWS, one biologist wrote: “We are not allowed to be honest and forthright…I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been.” Another scientist reported that Department of Interior officials “have forced upper-level managers to say things that are incorrect.” A manager wrote: “There is a culture of fear of retaliation in mid-management.”

Encouragingly, it is clear from the survey that USFWS scientists are committed to and proud of their work and believe in the potential of the agency to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats. However, political intervention is having a chilling effect on the ability of USFWS scientists to carry out the agency’s mission.

UCS has joined with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to design and conduct surveys of several government agencies to document the abuse of science and determine the pervasiveness off the problem. The surveys will assist the scientific community in documenting that the abuse of science is an ongoing, serious concern. We are looking into ways that the results of the USFWS survey can be used to further a more thorough investigation of this problem.

It has taken decades to build worldclass scientific staff at the USFWS and other government science agencies. The future ability of the agency to fulfill its mission will be severely hampered if this political interference is allowed to continue. To restore scientific integrity at the USFWS, at least two reforms are needed: there must be protections for scientists who are asked to take actions that violate their scientific integrity and the Bush administration must recognize at its highest levels that manipulating or suppressing science for political reasons is unethical.

signed: Michael Halpern, Outreach Coordinator Restoring Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making Campaign Union of Concerned Scientists, Dean A. Hendrickson, Ph.D. Curator of Ichthyology, University of Texas, Texas Memorial Museum, Texas Natural History Collections, others.

See also last week’s LA Times, U.S. Scientists Say They Are Told to Alter Findings

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