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Scientific Integrity at the Department of Interior

One of the great strengths of the Endangered Species Act is its foundation in robust scientific principles and its reliance on the best available science. But mounting evidence shows that political interference is undermining the implementation and enforcement of protections for imperiled species.

In May 2008 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, UCS Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo described how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has distorted science and changed the way it uses scientific information to stack the deck against endangered and threatened species. Dr. Grifo’s testimony (oral, written) recommended several reforms needed to restore scientific integrity to the federal policy making process.

The hearing came one year after the resignation of former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, whose political meddling was revealed by UCS and several conservation groups and subsequently documented in a scathing Interior Department Inspector General report. At a May 2007 House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Dr. Grifo warned that the pervasive problem of political interference at federal agencies was not solved by MacDonald’s departure (written testimony). In fact, a 2005 UCS survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found that 128 scientists had been asked for non-scientific reasons to refrain from making scientific findings that are protective of species.

The hearing also came just three weeks after Rep. Waxman (D-CA) and UCS released evidence that White House officials were delaying a rule intended to reduce fatal collisions between ships and the critically endangered right whale. The Office of the Vice President and the White House Council of Economic Advisers spearheaded an attempt to discredit the federal science behind the rule.

As of May 2008, more than 80 endangered species decisions are under some type of review because of inappropriate interference. The UCS A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science provides details for many affected species, including the white-tailed prairie dog, Florida panther, bull trout, and trumpeter swan.

Advancing Solutions

The problem of political interference in science will not be solved by a new administration or the resignation of additional political appointees.  There will always be pressure on elected officials from special interests to weaken environmental laws. For that reason UCS urges systemic reforms. Specifically:

  • Meaningful ethics guidelines must be implemented at all agencies, addressing the protection of imperiled species.
  • The decision-making process must be made more transparent to expose the misuse of scientific information. When announcing a decision, the FWS should publicly explain the scientific rationale for each listing decision and recovery plan, complete with a justification of how scientific and economic data were reconciled; the names of those involved in the decision; and whether there was any dissenting scientific analysis.
  • Scientists should be allowed basic freedoms to carry out their work and keep up with advances in their field.  This should include the right to publish in peer-reviewed journals regardless of whether research results support administration policy, the right to speak freely through clear media and communications policies, and the encouragement to actively participate in all aspects of scientific societies.
  • Whistleblower rights must be guaranteed to scientists, to encourage them to expose fraud, waste, and abuse in endangered species decisions without fear of reprisal.

In addition, UCS recommends actions that Congress and the Department of Interior can take to redress specific issues:

  • Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar should send a clear message to all political appointees that substituting opinions for science is unacceptable.
  • In light of the demonstrated pervasiveness of political interference in Endangered Species Act decisions during the past several years, the Interior Department should engage in a systematic review of all Bush administration decisions to ensure that the science behind those decisions was not altered or distorted. At the very least, Secretary Salazar should require an immediate reevaluation of all the decisions where political interference has been exposed.
  • Secretary Salazar must demonstrate that the 90 day review is protective of species. Listing decisions must be based on best available scientific and commercial data. Secretary Salazar must insure that all the information the FWS has is included – not just the information that would not support a listing.
  • Given the number of recent attempts to undermine the scientific underpinnings of the Endangered Species Act by members of Congress and political appointees, congressional committees of jurisdiction must act to safeguard the role of science in protecting highly imperiled species.
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