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Posted on: Tuesday, 28 June 2005, 21:21 CDT
NOAA Scientists Say Reports Altered
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Many scientists at NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for balancing hydroelectric dams against endangered salmon, say they know of cases where scientific findings were altered at the request of commercial interests, according to a survey released Tuesday by two watchdog groups.
The survey was conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The survey posed 34 questions and was sent to 460 NOAA Fisheries scientists across the country. Responses came back from 124, or 27 percent.
"The conclusion is that political interference is a serious problem at NOAA Fisheries," Lexis Schulz, Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said from Washington.
Among the findings:
- 58 percent of respondents said they knew of cases where high-level Commerce Department appointees or managers inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries determinations.
- 53 percent said they were aware of cases in which commercial interests inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.
- 13 percent said they knew of cases where environmental interests inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.
- 44 percent said NOAA Fisheries routinely makes determinations using its best scientific judgment, even when political pressure is applied, while 37 percent disagreed.
Steven Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science adviser for NOAA Fisheries, said from Washington that the survey represented about 6 percent of the nearly 2,000 scientists at the agency, and primarily represented the views of low-level staff who evaluate the work of others to develop management policy, not research scientists.
Murawski would not say there was no political influence over science at the agency, but said science is the foundation of policy decisions that must take into account social and economic factors.
"To say it is politicized is a cheap shot, really," he said. "These are complex decisions, and many times people don't like the outcomes for one reason or the other."
Schulz said one of the inspirations for the survey was a recent case where NOAA Fisheries adopted a policy that counts some hatchery salmon and wild salmon together when assessing their status as endangered species. The policy was adopted despite advice from the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel, made up of independent scientists, that they should adopt rules to keep hatchery and wild fish separate.
At the time, NOAA Fisheries Northwest Regional Administrator Bob Lohn said the hatchery policy was guided by a federal court ruling and staff scientists.
Robert T. Paine, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington served as chairman of the review panel. He said from Seattle that NOAA Fisheries rejected the first part of their report when they saw it dealt with the 2001 ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan that the fisheries agency could not give Endangered Species Act protection just to wild fish if it had previously lumped hatchery fish into the same population.
"The political wing of NOAA was outraged at us dealing with the Hogan decision," Paine said. "We were given three choices: submit the report as it was, and they wouldn't post it. To redo the report and they would be enthusiastic about it and they would help us do that. And thirdly, we were always given permission to publish."
They published their recommendations in the journal Science last year.
"I have no doubt, in fact, that there is a certain amount of tension between NOAA scientists who are charged with forming policy - the majority of those people are political appointees, so they are going to do whatever the current administration dictates - and the people in charge of science, if you will. There are a a lot of good scientists there. I think at times they feel terribly disappointed their recommendations are ignored or modified."
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