Political Meddling Hampers Fish and Wildlife Service Scientists

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2005 (ENS) Ė Wildlife species federally listed as endangered or threatened are not being protected because of political pressure to alter scientific results, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists revealed in their responses to a survey released Wednesday by two nonprofit groups.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) distributed a 42 question survey to more than 1,400 biologists, ecologists, botanists and other science professionals working in USFWS Ecological Services field offices across the country to obtain their perceptions of scientific integrity within the Service, as well as political interference, resources and morale.

The survey was sent to 1,410 scientists. Of these, 414 scientists, or 29.4 percent, responded, despite agency directives to them not to fill out the survey, even on their own time.

By far, the most frequent concern raised by the scientists in their written responses was political interference.

Forty-four percent of respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings reported that they "have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species."

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist collects information about the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
One in five respondents, 82 scientists, said they have been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document."

More than half of all respondents - 56 percent - reported cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention."

Forty-two percent said they could not openly express "concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation" in public while thirty percent felt they could not do so even inside the confines of the agency.

Thirty-two percent expressed the concern that they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists.

"Political science, not biology, has become the dominant discipline in todayís Fish and Wildlife Service," said PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose, who worked with current and former employees of the Service on design of the survey.

The administration of President George W. Bush has given species conservation a low priority by comparison with other concerns such as resource extraction. Courts have found the Bush administration in violation of the Endangered Species Act more than 60 times in its first three years in office.

The Bush administration has listed 25 species under the Endangered Species Act in three years, each of them the result of a court order. The first Bush administration listed an average of 58 species a year, and the Clinton administration averaged 65 additions a year.

In essays submitted on the topic of how to improve the integrity of scientific work at the Service, one biologist wrote, "We are not allowed to be honest and forthright, we are expected to rubber stamp everything. I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been."

A number of the essays spoke about the climate of fear within the agency. One biologist in Alaska wrote, "Recently, [Department of Interior] officials have forced changes in Service documents, and worse, they have forced upper-level managers to say things that are incorrectÖItís one thing for the Department to dismiss our recommendations, itís quite another to be forced (under veiled threat of removal) to say something that is counter our best professional judgment."

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist prepares a captive bred California condor, an endangered species, for reintroduction into the wild. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
A manager wrote, "There is a culture of fear of retaliation in mid-level management. If the manager were to speak out for resources, they fear loss of jobs or funding for their programs."

And a biologist from the Pacific region wrote, the only "hope [is] we get sued by an environmental or conservation organization."

Three out of four staff scientists and 78 percent of scientist managers felt that the USFWS is not "acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats, so as to avoid possible listings under the Endangered Species Act,"

For those species already listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, 69 percent of respondents did not regard the USFWS as effective in its efforts toward recovery of those listed species.

Nearly two out of three scientists - 64 percent - do not feel the agency "is moving in the right direction."

More than 71 percent staff scientists and more than half of scientist managers did not "trust USFWS decision makers to make decisions that will protect species and habitats."

There was a broad perception that the agency lacks the resources to accomplish its mission with a corresponding strain on staff morale.

Half of all scientific staff reported that morale is poor to extremely poor and only 0.5 percent rated morale as excellent.

More than nine out of ten - 92 percent - did not feel that the agency "has sufficient resources to adequately perform its environmental mission."

More than four out of five respondents said that funding to implement the Endangered Species Act is inadequate.

Still, scientific collaboration among USFWS scientists, academia and other federal agency scientists appears to be relatively untainted by these conditions, with a strong majority of 83 percent reporting they felt free to collaborate with their colleagues on species and habitat issues.

But 54 percent of respondents said they "don't know" whether they are allowed to publish work in peer-reviewed scientific journals regardless of whether it adheres to agency policies and positions.

"The survey results illustrate an alarming disregard for scientific facts among political appointees entrusted to protect threatened and endangered species," said UCS Washington representative Lexi Shultz.

"Employing scientists only to undermine their findings is at best a mismanagement of public resources and at worst a serious betrayal of the public trust," said Shultz.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not the only goverment agency that has asked scientists to alter reports of their findings under the Bush administration.

salmon

The chinook or king, salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, was listed as endangered in 1999. Habitat destruction and dilution of the gene pool with hatchery fish continue. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Six ecologists who were appointed to a scientific advisory panel by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationís (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) claim that they were asked to remove science-based recommendations from an official report.

According to the advisory panelís lead scientist, Robert Paine, a world renowned ecologist at the University of Washington, the panelís scientific recommendations were suppressed by the NMFS. "The members of the panel were told to either strip out our recommendations or see our report end up in a drawer," he said.

Over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists has developed a set of recommendations for improving the protection of government scientists. "One solution could be to create a corps of scientific ombudsmen who would, on a confidential basis, be responsible for resolving such problems in collaboration with the inspector general of the department and the Office of Science and Technology Policy," the UCS suggests.

"Such a process, if properly designed, would conform to the culture of science and would reduce the likelihood that every such conflict becomes a public legal joust or political cause celebre."

Ombudsmen are needed, the UCS says, because government scientists have "minimal legal protection should they seek to resist orders or actions by their superiors that violate the ethical code of science."

The Whistleblower Protection Act only offers protection if the abuse violates laws or creates imminent danger to public health and safety. A handful of individual statutes, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, protect disclosures of information that further implementation of those laws, but that is the extent of protection for government scientists.

If Congress were better informed, scientists might be better protected, the UCS suggests. A bipartisan group of House members, including the chairman and ranking member of the Science Committee, is proposing creation of a Center for Scientific and Technical Assessment within the General Accountability Office. The initial sponsors of this proposal are Representatives Rush Holt, Sherwood Boehlert, Amo Houghton, and Bart Gordon.

"A Congress more fully informed about science and technology could play a stronger role in ensuring that federal policy making is informed by the best available science," says the UCS.

"Government sponsored scientific research is increasingly being withheld from the scientific community at large, the public, and even Congress," the UCS warns.

The organization of scientists says reforms are needed in the governmentís classification policies to ensure information is withheld only in cases of a clear threat to national security. "The Freedom of Information Act should also be reformed to prevent government officials from suppressing unfavorable scientific findings by indefinitely keeping reports in draft form."