Politicizing science – the view from the front lines

A survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists included employees of CDC, FDA, FWS and NOAA.

A significant number of scientists (46 to 73 percent of respondents across agencies) reported that political interests at their agencies were given too much weight in their agencies.  Many scientists told us that scientific decisions were being swayed by politics or that political influence inhibited their ability to carry out agency missions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was at the 73% end of the scale where one employee said,

“It is my perception that upper-level managers are influenced by fear of Congress dismantling the Endangered Species Act and/or otherwise interfering with the mission of the Service.”

One would expect that this would eventually lead to litigation about not following the law (followed by Congress complaining about the plaintiffs and the courts).

Interesting that another question in the survey indicates that Congress is as guilty as advocacy groups are for slowing the ESA process down.  While the Department of the Interior is credited with investing in scientific integrity, the Agriculture Department is singled out for not doing so.

13 Comments

  1. Seems to me, most all the “sciences” we currently use to manage our federal lands are all political.
    And that most of the upper level management is more interested in politics than what’s really happening on the ground. They used politics to get all this “science” put into law and now some are afraid that someone might try to put some balance into it with more politics, I mean “science”.
    Do these agencies even know what their missions are anymore?

  2. Let’s call politics what it is – business and their lobbyists. When I have gone through the NEPA process, the pressure has always been on to enlarge the scope to decrease the impacts – cumulative and direct because business won’t like the result. It doesn’t matter if it is the Forest Service Larry, whose “mission” is not to get the cut out, or my agency, which must see itself as the economic engine of the entire country although it is not part of the Department of Commerce. Science requires thought and thought requires time. Let’s include the House and Senate which generally doesn’t understand the first thing about biology, much less any other science. What I would like to see is the agencies stand by each other because the staff is excoriated every day by individuals, heads of agencies, state senators and representatives, governors, businessmen, consultants and Colonels who don’t think, biologically speaking.

    • Oddly enough, I didn’t say anything about annual cuts but, as long as you bring it up, annual cuts have been reduced to 1/30th of the 1988 levels, in the Sierra Nevada. I’ll bet the prepared and sold volumes for this last fiscal year are even less then the official ASQ’s, too. Since the Sierra Nevada Framework was completed during the Clinton Administration, it sure appears to me that science was cherrypicked to set diameter limits at such a level to make timber sales un-economic, eliminating thinning projects. It is pretty clear to me that the science showing that thinned forests are healthier and more resilient was disregarded, in favor of preservationist dogma (aka “passive restoration”).

      Yes, it IS a problem when outsiders meddle in Forest Service science. Whether it is from conservatives or liberals, they both don’t want science “getting in the way” of their desires and opinions. Adding to that problem, forest management isn’t all about “following the science”. IMHO, multiple use is the strongest policy adviser, including recreation, drinking water, wildlife, wood products, etc. If the forests die, rot and burn, those multiple uses are all thwarted, eroded or eliminated.

  3. “It is pretty clear to me that the science showing that thinned forests are healthier and more resilient was disregarded, in favor of preservationist dogma (aka “passive restoration).”

    I think this is the way science is supposed to play into agency decisions. Lay all the facts on the table, and then make a decision based on which facts are more important to the decision-maker. Science doesn’t limit a decision unless it indicates that a decision would be illegal (usually because the effects of the decision would be illegal).

    At that point, if done right, it doesn’t matter that the decision-maker is biased one way or another, either personally or based on the agency mission. The problem seems to be that some decision-makers (or agencies) would rather not reveal their bias. That can be accomplished by “cherry-picking” the facts to put on the table (suppressing reasonable opposing views), by misrepresenting the facts, or by presenting them in a biased way. All of these things can be accomplished by “political” pressure. They would also be illegal under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of judicial review.

    It is also possible for scientists to similarly distort the facts based on their own bias. While that is the prerogative of advocacy scientists, if done by an agency scientist it could also lead to an arbitrary and capricious decision if not detected (or if approved) by a decision-maker. Occasionally a pro-business plaintiff wins a case like this, but the Forest Service almost always loses because they fail to properly address environmental factors (no doubt sometimes due to “political” pressure).

    With regard to the Forest Service “mission” – it is multiple use, which is subject to agency discretion, and this (which is not): “It is further declared to be the policy of Congress that all Federal agency departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities (multiple-use) in furtherance of the purposes of this Act (ESA).”

    • Yet, the ESA still doesn’t protect habitats from complete loss by wildfires. In the case of owls and goshawks, once a core nesting habitat becomes unusable, a new area that best fits the nesting habitat characteristics is established. Over the years, nesting success becomes less and less viable, with more scattered and fragmented habitats supporting less wildlife. Just because such damaged landscapes MAY return in many centuries, that doesn’t mean that species aren’t impacted, or even eradicated. Part of the problem is lumping human-caused fires into the “natural and beneficial” category, and another part is the cumulative damages that happen, through the “Whatever Happens” mindset. Some people seem to want as many species as possible to stay listed, by whatever means possible, including the loss of irreplaceable habitats. Serial litigators accept this reality, with apparent glee, or amazing ignorance.

  4. Hey, let’s face it. The Forest Service (and, quite possibly, other agencies, too) is managed by politicians and is according to politics rather than biological principles. And, do politicians really care about the biology or are they more interested in their number one priority in DC – i.e., getting re-elected?!

  5. There are two things at play – every management action on the national forests or any other public lands with competing or “big” economic or political interests is guided by political expediency and career-building by USFS leadership from rangers to supervisors on up the food chain to Tidwell. And they only think about the resource in the same timeframe as their career-length. The second part though is the dumbing down of the agency. I spent a long time in USFS R&D and can tell you that in those rare instances when we were not engaged in self-fulfilling esoteric research, national forests really wanted nothing to do with our findings or recommendations and in most cases they were unable to understand even basic science findings. Moreover, I always encountered either resistance or dismissal whenever we invented a better mouse trap – even when the recommendations would have enabled or justified more cutting and burning. If you advocating cutting, the national forest ewoks from soil, air, water, recreation and fisheries would howl. If you advocating cutting for a restoration or wildlife purpose, the silviculture shop, rather than embrace the opportunity to get the wood out would be “we don’t need a bunch of biologists telling us how and where to cut”. I found few national forest people that ever even subscribed or read SAF, let alone AFS, TWS or SCB journals. Zero professional interest or development. Most folks in R&D work their week and then spend their evenings reading the literature in their field plus other things of interest. To me it was very distressing to interact with a national forest type that had a graduate degree but had regressed and was unable or unwilling to use science products, to understand basic statistics and probability distribution, uncertainty, zones of inference. If national forest managers wanted science, they only wanted results or findings to allow the status quo to continue or to justify a new direction coming from the top down.

    Deed all the national forests back to the states. Take 1/2 of the operating budget and give to the states (doubtful they’d even need that). I guarantee you that the states’ bureaus of forestry and fish and game agencies could manage the whole thing for way less, keep the local communities happy, obey the law, provide needed habitat, get wood to the mills AND incorporate science in their management.

    • Deed all the forests back to the states and they will all be single use monoculture such as Weyerhaeuser has on the West coast or as Oregon has shown with Elliott State Forest, unmanageable and thus sold to a private timber interest. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathtub water. That’s solving a problem by making it some else’s problem.

      • The Elliott State Forests doesn’t look anything like Weyerhaeuser ground, but not now that they have decided to sell the people forests, thanks to Cascadian Wildlands, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up that way.

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