Grousing About Politics and Science

When the United States and France completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it was unclear exactly how much land was being exchanged.  President Thomas Jefferson accordingly commissioned the Corps of Discovery to explore the territory, choosing his friend Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition.  Over a period of some two and half years, Lewis and his partner William Clark were to conduct the first overland expedition of North America to the Pacific coast and back. 

During their travels, they established relationships with some of the native peoples, notably eliciting the aide of the Shoshone woman Sacagawea to act as a guide and interpreter.  They were to provide a significantly improved understanding of the geography of the northwestern United States and to document 122 previously unknown species of animals and 178 new plants and trees. 

It was at the mouth of the Marias River in what is now Chouteau County, Montana that Lewis and Clark encountered the sage grouse on June 6, 1805.  Their native-american companions told them it was a common bird, and indeed their journals record further encounters throughout much of the region.  Estimates are that sage grouse numbered somewhere around 16 million in population around the time of their documentation by Lewis and Clark.  Today, it has only a fraction of that population — somewhere about 250,000 — and efforts to include it on the Endangered Species List have become emblematic of what many scientists see as political encroachment on scientific independence. 

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the sage grouse “warrants” inclusion on the List but that it was “precluded by the need to address higher priority species first.”  A very different decision was made under the Bush administration in 2005 when Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald ruled against its listing.  That decision was one that highlighted some of the most egregious interference with science for political reasons in recent memory.  In Western Watersheds Project v. United States Forest Service, the Idaho District Court described the conduct of the Deputy Assistant Secretary as “inexcusable,” finding that “[h]er tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating [Freedom and Wildlife Service] staffers.”  The court’s ruling, which can be found here, documents repeated and persistent “attempts to improperly alter the ‘best science’ findings” as part of a campaign to achieve “preordained” political objectives.  Similar allegations have been leveled against her by scientists in numerous other cases involving decisions not to list certain species. 

It is perhaps no surprise then that the release of a draft policy on scientific integrity by the Interior Department is being viewed with considerable skepticism by scientists.  Those scientists remember well when President Obama issued his Memorandum on Scientific Integrity on March 9, 2009 calling for the development of “recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch” within 120 days.  A copy of his Memorandum can be found here.  It was still the honeymoon period for the new administration and at the time, the apparent commitment was heralded by many scientists as a welcome change from perceived attempts by the prior administration to suppress scientific knowledge and conclusions for political purposes.  But that enthusiasm has steadily given way to frustration and disappointment as time still continues to pass more than a year after the President’s deadline without any recommendations or plan being developed. 

The release of the Interior Department’s draft policy a couple of weeks ago is the first real manifestation of the executive branch’s implementation of policy directed to scientific integrity.  Most scientists who have read it believe it falls short.  Of particular concern is language that appears still to allow political appointees to alter scientific documents, exactly what was happening in considering additions to the Endangered Species List by the prior administration:  “During the conduct of Departmental business, decision makers may be involved in editing of documents for clarification of major points to aid decision making.”  But more broadly, the policy is seen as having insufficient provisions for preventing other types of political interference in science.  Another provision, for example, warns that “[p]ublic release of a scientific product without the required level of review or without appropriate disclaimers could be considered misconduct.”  There is concern that the normal circulation of material by scientists among their peers for scientific evaluation could be considered misconduct, particularly since little guidance is given by the policy as to when dissemination is “premature.” 

A copy of the draft policy can be read here

To be fair, the policy has been released in draft form as part of the normal rule-making procedure that is followed by Executive agencies so that comments can be collected from the public and considered prior to its actual implementation; the comment period is set to expire on September 20, 2010.  That procedure is an important part of the process, allowing the public at large to identify and articulate deficiencies in proposed policies or rules.  Proposals can sometimes be modified significantly in light of the comments that are provided, and the hope is that that will happen in this instance.  But even if the major concerns are addressed, scientists will still eagerly await the more broadly applicable recommendations promised by the President in the ambitious early days of his tenure.

About Patrick Boucher

The author, Patrick M. Boucher, is a patent attorney living near Denver, Colorado and working at Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle. He holds a Ph.D. in physics as well as a J.D. He is an active member of the American Physical Society, and is admitted to practice law in the states of Colorado and New York, as well as to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is also a member of the Authors Guild and of the Colorado Authors League.