Director Martha Williams’ Science Degree Kerfuffle at USFWS- A Legal, Political or “Scientific Integrity” Issue?

Not only is this story interesting, but how it’s been covered is also interesting. Apparently, the Director of FWS is required to have scientific credentials. But scientists are saying that appointing a lawyer instead is..illegal. and one wonders “why now”?

According to this AP/ABC News story..

Federal law says only someone with “scientific education and experience” can be appointed director of the service.

Attorneys for the Biden administration said in court filings that the law requires Williams’ education to be considered “cumulatively” with her experience.

“She clearly has the requisite background,” they wrote.

Here’s what E&E news says about “education and experience”:

Justice Department attorneys rejected Aland’s arguments, starting with his claim of being harmed, which they noted was framed around the idea that somebody could seek to overturn a decision by Williams because of her qualifications. The attorneys dismissed that argument as “speculative at best.” The Justice Department added that “Williams’ extensive career as a professionally trained public servant in the field of fisheries and wildlife management is sufficient to satisfy the requirements” of the law. “The statute provides that both education and experience should be considered when confirming that a nominee has adequate knowledge of the principles of fisheries and wildlife management, but there is no independent requirement that she attain any specific education,” the attorneys wrote.

They claim Williams is serving in contradiction to the administration’s own policies and ethics rules. They pointed to an assessment done by Biden’s Scientific Integrity Task Force that suggests executive branch positions should be filled by candidates with appropriate credentials and that violations of scientific integrity policies should be taken as seriously as violations of ethics rules.

So there are two separate concerns here.. one is the unique requirements for FWS Director.. and the other is more of a global “need for a science background” concern- which could be applied to natural resource agencies, or DOE or…

With the exception of Williams, every director since the agency was overhauled in the 1970s had a scientific education, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“I see this appointment as a tipping point, where politics will forever override statutory credentials,” said Parsons, who authored the letter.

In the lawsuit challenging her confirmation, Illinois lawyer Robert Aland claimed decisions made by Williams would be “contaminated” since she was appointed illegally. Wildlife “could suffer the most serious adverse consequences” as a result, he said.

Could wildlife suffer direct consequences from the illegality? I think not. So the assumption is that perhaps regulatory decisions will go wrong if political appointees don’t have a science background? Or is it all agencies that work with the environment? But at the Cabinet level, they tend to be politicians, who tend not to have science backgrounds- and then there is direction from anonymous White House officials that can overrule Cabinet Secretaries.. so I think the “technical background” argument is pretty well lost.

 The preceding FWS director, Ashe, had a background in marine affairs and wetlands and had also served as chief of the service’s National Wildlife Refuge System and as the science adviser to the director.
Ashe was preceded as director by a decades-long FWS career employee. The four directors before that had earned a master’s in fisheries science, a doctorate science, a doctorate in forest resources, a master’s in wildlife ecology and a master’s in forestry, respectively. All had field experience.

Note the mention of “field experience” in the E&E news article. I think it’s a good thing to have, but many appointees and career folks come without it.

“Many familiar names, and a few close associates and friends, are among the signatories to this letter. I would ask each of them to reflect on the words of Voltaire — To hold a pen is to be at war,” former FWS Director Dan Ashe said in an email. “Any individual’s qualification to serve as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director is a matter between the President and the U.S. Senate, and Martha Williams is the confirmed Director. Her job is formidable and she deserves our confidence and support. She has mine.”

Now I don’t know Dan Ashe, but the warfare thing seems a bit  over the top (although I have to admire using Voltaire in snippets for media quotes) and mildly threatening.

I thought it was interesting where CBD is on this (from the ABC news story)..since their main work seems to be suing FWS..

Center for Biological Diversity government affairs director Brett Hartl said the group knew about Williams’ lack of a degree, but decided nevertheless to support her.

He said his group believed having “an outside person” serve as director would offer a better opportunity to solve deep cultural issues that have plagued the agency over the years. Hartl agreed that the law requires a science degree but said the Senate has the ultimate authority to decide who’s qualified.

Does anyone know what the “deep cultural issues” might be?

Here’s the scientists’ letter.

And finally this paragraph from the letter:

A 2022 survey of Service personnel conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed the persistence of significant barriers to science-based decisions within the Service: 43% agreed that the “consideration of political interests” hinders the ability of the agency to make science-based decisions; and 19% agree that the “absence of leadership with scientific experience” also hinders science-based decision-making. See raw survey tabular results here.

Unfortunately for me, the links in the letter (bolded above) were not live. I found this on the UCS website  but it wasn’t helpful.. so if anyone has the links from the scientists’ letter, please put them in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Director Martha Williams’ Science Degree Kerfuffle at USFWS- A Legal, Political or “Scientific Integrity” Issue?”

  1. It seems kind of funny when so many decisions about species and wildlife are made by judges at the behest of lawyers, a group that usually isn’t very heavy with science degrees.

  2. It’s a bit on the nose that the people/groups most vocally opposed to a woman with a law degree directing the USFWS are those whose business model is suing the government, but hey, what do I know?…

  3. quote: sorta: “At the cabinet level and above there tend to be politicians and staff who lack a scientific background, so I think the argument that the FWS Director should have a science background is lost” Quite the contrary. The “generalist thinkers” above the agency level are supposed to be good at weighing all the issues and evidence. Science at the level of Director of FWS is necessary to assure that good science goes up the line. More, the Director is more close to all the technical and experienced staff below, including professional evaluations, and his/her level of acceptance and understanding of staff ideas may be either encouraging or discouraging.

  4. It’s ridiculous that this administration would make this argument after appointing a small town mayor to Secretary of Transportation-one of the most important positions in cabinet. I guess blatant hypocrisy might be correct occasionally. A senior level manager should not be thoroughly competent in subject matter, that is leadership 101

  5. It sounds to me like something that started with a professional turf issue (taking away an important job from scientists), characterized as a scientific integrity issue, that also latched onto a legal issue.

    A good manager should be able to manage the scientific integrity issue without being an expert. (It sounds like it is “policy” that this position provide only “leadership.”) I also don’t think it is necessarily true that, “The scientific education requirement is unambiguous and separate from the experience requirement.” The law refers to their combination. (I’ll bet she has as much experience doing what her job is – corralling scientific information for a political boss – than most of her predecessors.) And then there is the question of who is harmed at this point (standing to sue), without a specific decision to point to that was somehow improperly made.

    We had some discussion of this case here (and its resemblance to a BLM director situation):

  6. Here’s an interesting comment in a letter to Director Williams signed by 27 Republican senators a year ago. They were writing about a possible settlement of a lawsuit that would restrict lead hunting and fishing products in national wildlife refuges: “We are encouraged that a sportswoman with first-hand knowledge of the intersection between federal policies and state wildlife conservation is leading USFWS in these discussions …”


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