One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Just two days after the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Oversight and Investigations released a damning review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (mis)use of science in determining whether or not various plant and animal species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Department of the Interior announced a new policy likely to make matters worse.

In a December 17 press release, DOI (which oversees USFWS) described the policy as “updated and strengthened,” designed “to ensure that all Interior employees and contractors uphold the principles of scientific integrity and that the Department thoroughly reviews alleged breaches of the policy while protecting workers.”

“Science is at the heart of Interior’s mission,” explained DOI Secretary Sally Jewell, “so it’s important that we continue to lead federal efforts to ensure robust scientific integrity.” [1]

Authors of that House Committee on Natural Resources report would, I think, likely dispute the claim that DOI is demonstrating leadership where robust scientific integrity is concerned. As would the folks at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who argue that the rules under which DOI agencies now operate “significantly weaken—not strengthen—safeguards against politicizing science. At the same time, they turn the enforcement and review process from an already daunting gauntlet into something more closely resembling a bureaucratic shell game.” [2]

Indeed, in their December 23 press release, PEER, an organization that “works nation-wide with government scientists, land managers, environmental law enforcement agents, field specialists and other resource professionals committed to responsible management of America’s public resources,” warns that “all of the changes tilt in one direction, making it harder to bring and pursue charges of misconduct while blurring lines of accountability for what happens when scientific misconduct is proven…” [2]

The authors of PEER’s detailed analysis (PDF) conclude that DOI’s new rules “seem designed to ensure that scientific integrity remains a rhetorical pulpit, divorced from the reality of how science inside Interior is routinely distorted to meet political objectives.” [3]

Among those distortions, of course, is the “best available science” routinely trotted out by USFWS to justify the agency’s ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats. As I’ve been arguing for years now, it’s largely indefensible.

Now, with DOI’s new rules in place, it seems more unlikely than ever that USFWS will be expected to defend it.

Literature Cited

1. n.a., Interior Department Announces Strengthened Scientific Integrity Policy for Employees and Contractors, 2014, U.S. Department of Interior.

2. n.a., New Revisions Weaken Interior Scientific Integrity Safeguards, 2014, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

3. n.a., PEER Analysis of New Interior Scientific Integrity Provisions, 2014, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.