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Policy: Environment & Energy

Why are publicly-funded scientists allowed to keep their work secret?

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Photo - Scientists working for the Fish & Wildlife Service should not be allowed to keep work-product produced on tax-funded projects out of the public view, according to Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold. Above is a gray wolf in Wymoming, a species that environmentalists worry could be over-hunted and driven to extinction. (AP Photo)
Scientists working for the Fish & Wildlife Service should not be allowed to keep work-product produced on tax-funded projects out of the public view, according to Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold. Above is a gray wolf in Wymoming, a species that environmentalists worry could be over-hunted and driven to extinction. (AP Photo)
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Who owns taxpayer-funded science? From the way many scientists behave, it's not the taxpayers.

Many scientific studies funded by federal agencies - through grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, particularly those used to justify the most horrendous regulations - hide the guts of the science.

What the scientists keep secret is the raw data they obtain in the real world and the methods they use to interpret it, as if those were personal possessions.

Independent scientist Rob Roy Ramey told me of an extreme example: "A researcher tracked endangered desert bighorn sheep with government GPS radio collars to record precise animal locations for wildlife rangers.

"He then reset the access codes so only he could download the data remotely, and refused to surrender the codes. So California Fish and Game had to track down and net-gun the bighorns from a helicopter in order to manually download the collar data, costing a fortune and endangering both animals and people."

Agency "science" frequently isn't about data collection at all, but instead is a "literature search," with researchers in a library selecting papers and reports by others that merely summarize results and give opinions of the actual scientists.

These agency researchers never even see the underlying data, much less collect it in the field. The agency then holds up those second-hand opinions as if they had rigorously tested them against the data. Using this unscrupulous tactic, you can cherry-pick the literature to make any case you want.

With so many federal reports containing no data, only conclusions put forth by another scientist, there is no way to debate, debunk or disprove the underlying facts, even requiring court orders to track down and disclose them if Freedom of Information Act requests are denied, which they frequently are (legally or otherwise).

How are we to know that the nation is not paying for mathematical errors, unreliable methods, deliberate bias, peer-review collusion, outright fakery, or even criminal activity and fraud?

All these allegations against federal agencies have emerged repeatedly - and surfaced once again at a congressional hearing Thursday. The House Natural Resources Committee under Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has been investigating secretive and corrupted science, titling this hearing, "Transparency and Sound Science Gone Extinct?"

A panel of four witnesses honed in on the impacts of the Obama administration's closed-door mega-settlements on endangered species and people.

These closed-door Big Green lawsuit settlements use the Endangered Species Act to force agencies to list hundreds of species and make related habitat decisions, not because the science supports the need, but because Big Green settlement deadlines require it.

Be forewarned: The Endangered Species Act is not about species at all, it's about land-use control. Everything in the ESA hinges on "critical habitat," land that a bureaucrat can declare useless to public and private users for a species' sake, with devastating impact.

Panel witness Damien Schiff, principal attorney of the Pacific Legal Foundation, testified that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself "estimated that the annual economic impact of critical habitat designation for the California gnatcatcher [a bird] is over $100 million."

One of the Natural Resources Defense Council's first publications was "Land Use Controls in the United States," a handbook that appeared in 1977 to teach activists how to separate land from use.

The power to impose land-use controls anywhere is the real motive behind all current sue-and-settle back-room species-listing deadline deals between Big Green and President Obama's administration.

Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended his sue and settle deals: "Settlement agreements are often in the public's best interest because we have no effective legal defense to most deadline cases." That's a flat lie.

Ashe has a powerful legal defense that he will not use: Demand that the science underlying the species listing be examined to determine whether it is flawed, corrupt or fraudulent. Failure to pass that test could totally invalidate the original listing and everything to do with it.

Why won't he use that moral, ethical and legal defense as an impartial arbiter? First, his agency authorized funding for most of the science. Second, most of the scientists are on his agency's payroll.

Third, politically, he can't try to win because it would make the Obama administration look like it opposes endangered species protection. Directed according to such a mindset, the FWS becomes a political tool using science as its sword and shield, it cannot be an impartial arbiter.

And make no mistake, the FWS is rife with malicious officials, as witness Kent McMullen, chairman of Franklin County, Washington's Natural Resources Advisory Committee, testified.

His written testimony filled nine pages with outrageous FWS dirty tricks and skullduggery in his county. For example, announcements of critical habitat designations for the White Bluffs Bladderpod plant were deliberately kept "under the radar" in Franklin County so it could become law without a big fuss. Only when Hastings asked county officials about it did the impending decision come to light.

McMullen said, "a FWS employee that apologized in private to a farm family told them that they had been told to keep the issue quiet and to not inform landowners or locals."

The star witness was independent scientist Ramey, a PhD with 33 years of worldwide experience with threatened and endangered wildlife.

Ramey hit key points hard: The data behind most ESA decisions is not publicly available. We own it and it should be posted on the web for independent, third party review - and so everyone can examine it, comment on it, and thus sap the power of the scientific elite.

Your vote is as good as any scientist's but your power isn't. That playing field can be leveled.

Ramey also emphasized that peer review is a useful but imperfect filter on information quality, subject to "species cartels" of scientific careerists who find a cash cow in the ESA. However, it is not a substitute for public access to the underlying data.

Ramey's plea was not so much for good science as for good citizenship. What passes for science in today's government is a travesty. Total transparency would help convert Big Green's worshipful scientism back into science.

We already have online data repositories such as GenBank for DNA sequences and Dryad for general-purpose data. Federal decision-making can be based on the best data, not just the best data available. Let's make it so.

Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner