Government Management of Science

“Peer review” is a concept that used to have meaning in science. It arose quite apart from any government role in science, on the basis that scientific progress was reported in independent journals. The editors of these journals, after receiving a manuscript for publication, would identify some other researchers in the field and ask for their comments. The editors would then ask the researcher seeking publication to respond to the resulting critiques.

Promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax, such as Idaho Power Council member Mike Field of Idaho, claim that the Return to the River report issued by the Council’s Independent Science Group was the subject of “traditional scientific peer review”.69 The ISG’s “peer review” process consisted of the ISG itself selecting reviewers, receiving the comments, and deciding whether or not to address the comments received. When Bruce Lovelin tried to get the comments on the ISG’s draft report in December 1996, the Power Planning Council’s lawyer, John Volkman, wrote back and told him that the reports were privileged from disclosure.70 The Freedom of Information Act did not apply, he said, because of an exemption said to encompass a “deliberative process” privilege. As we have seen, the government often invokes this “privilege” to keep fish and wildlife decisionmaking secret.

Unfortunately, review of the ISG report was consistent with the sort of “peer review” process commonly pursued in the government. Some Members of Congress, including Senator Dirk Kempthorne, are trying to reform the Endangered Species Act to get “good science” through requirements of “peer review”, without defining what they mean by “peer review”. That will not accomplish much.

In 1996, Senator Gorton, working with other members of the Northwest Congressional Delegation, secured passage of a new section to the Northwest Power Act. The new  4(h)(10)(D) directs the Northwest Power Planning Council to appoint an “Independent Scientific Review Panel” to review projects proposed for funding as part of the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program.71 The new law has had the salutary effect of giving the Council additional authority to reject fishery agency recommendations for its Program, undercutting (if not eliminating) the pernicious influence of the 1994 Ninth Circuit decision requiring a "high degree of deference" to the agencies. Given the degree to which fishery agency recommendations have lost a solid basis in science, allowing the Council to listen to scientists instead of fishery managers is an important first step in reform of the process.

Unfortunately, even before the bill was passed, fishery interests lobbied hard to scale back its effect. Instead of reviewing all the Council's fish and wildlife projects, as initially proposed, the Panel is to review merely “a sufficient number of projects to adequately assure that the list of prioritized projects recommended is consistent with the Council’s program”—whatever that means. In November 1997, the Tribes, angry with the Panel's recommendation to defer funding of their hatchery projects, filed suit against the Council, arguing that their projects were unfairly singled out for cuts. No decision is expected for a year or more.

Section 4(h)(10)(D) also directs the Council to establish “Scientific Peer Review Groups” to assist the Panel. The members of these groups were supposed to be chosen from lists provided by the National Academy of Science. We were initially hopeful that this would bring some fresh, unbiased scientists into the picture.

After the bill was passed, however, the Council somehow co-opted the National Academy of Science, so that the list of scientists provided by the Academy was essentially pre-selected by the Council. Eight of the eleven members of the new Panel were the same conservation biologists composing the Independent Science Group, who continued to promote their “conceptual foundation” for back-to-nature salmon solutions.

Some believe that it is at least theoretically possible to establish a process to gather good science, even if the government funds the process. As the Director of the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute has pointed out,

“Research conducted under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and certain other funding agencies is subjected to intense national competition and to review by persons who do not have a stake in the outcome. This process has produced a caliber of science that is respected worldwide. By contrast, much of the research that supports natural resource decisionmaking is weak or noncompetitive and is scrutinized only by the funding source. It may also be intensely political. As a consequence, the research may be dismissed after the fact as having been flawed in its hypothesis, experimental design, methodology or significance. We could save a considerable amount of time, money and credibility if topical, applied research was subjected to the same degree of competition and rigorous review as is basic science in this country.”72

The key element here is competition. So long as research is dominated by harvest agencies that divert nearly all research funding to themselves, no progress can be made.
Others are more pessimistic. Three Canadian scientists reviewing the use of fisheries science in Canada recently published a controversial article entitled: “Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control?” Their conclusion:

“. . . the present framework for linking science with management can, and has, lead to abuses that threaten the ability of scientists to understand fully the causes of fish declines, to identify means of preventing fishery collapses from recurring, to incorporate scientific advice in management decisions, and to communicate research in a timely fashion to as wide an audience as possible.”73

This succinctly describes the situation in the Pacific Northwest. The response of the Canadian government to the article also parallels the Northwest experience: the Deputy Minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans denounced the paper as “tabloid journalism” “based on innuendo and misrepresentation which have no place in a scientific journal”.74

Experience above and below the U.S.-Canada border suggests that the more that government tries to manage the scientific process, the worse the problem will get.

69 Memo, M. Field & M. Walker to Council Members, Feb. 20, 1997, at 1.

70 Letter, J. Volkman to B. Lovelin, Dec. 13, 1996.

71 H. Rep. No. 104-782, 104th Cong., 2d Sess. 23 (Sept. 12, 1996).

72 M. Landolt, Fisheries Forum, Vol. 3(2), at 1, 7 (May 1995).

73 J. Hutchings, C. Walters & R. Haedrich, “Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control?”, 54 Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 1198, 1208 (1997).

74 Quoted in C. Enman, “36 Scientists: End the suppression”, The Ottawa Citizen, July 4, 1997 (Mr. Enman also reports that “[t]wo DFO bureaucrats have also threatened Mr. Myers [another critic of the Department] with a lawsuit”).

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