Publicly-funded scientists who keep their work secret should be censured and cut off from future funding
By Ron Arnold
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 – hide the guts of the science. What the scientists keep secret is the raw data they obtain and the methods they use to interpret it, as if those were personal possessions. It’s an especially outrageous attitude when their work is used to justify the horrendous, burdensome regulations.
Independent scientist Rob Roy Ramey recounted 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. California Fish and Game had to track down and net-gun the bighorns from a helicopter, to manually download the data, costing a fortune and endangering both animals and people.”
Agency “science” frequently isn’t about data collection at all. Instead, it’s a “literature search,” with researchers in a library selecting papers and reports written by others, merely summarizing results and giving 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, they can cherry-pick the literature to make any case they want, for any regulation they want to impose.
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. It’s almost impossible even to get court orders to track down and disclose the data, if Freedom of Information Act requests are denied, which they frequently are (legally or otherwise).
If there is no way to test a statement, hypothesis or theory, it is not science. It’s opinion or politics. If you hide the raw data, no one can test it, and it’s easy for agenda-driven “researchers” and regulators to implement laws that are based on junk science or even fraud.
Indeed, the only reason a scientist would want to hide his or her data and methods is to prevent others from discovering or demonstrating that they are false – or to surreptitiously seek personal profit from taxpayer-funded discoveries, which likewise are not the property of the discovering tax-paid scientist.
We shouldn’t base our regulations on untested and unscientific “science.” And yet American science is riddled with data secrecy. How can we know the nation isn’t 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. They surfaced once again at an August 2, 2013 congressional hearing. House Natural Resources Committee under Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) has been investigating secretive and corrupted science. At his 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 secretive 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. They underscore the nasty reality that the Endangered Species Act is not about protecting species; it’s about land-use control. Everything in the ESA hinges on “critical habitat,” land that a bureaucrat can declare is off limits for public and private users, supposedly to serve a species’ needs, but with devastating impacts on people, jobs and private property.
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.” It’s undoubtedly much higher than that.
One of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s first publications was “Land Use Controls in the United States,” a 1977 handbook that taught activists how to separate land from use (and users and owners). 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 bureaucrats.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe naturally 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,” he claimed. That’s a flat-out lie.
Ashe has a powerful legal defense that he refuses to use: Demand that the science underlying the species listing be tested to determine whether it is flawed, corrupt or fraudulent. He won’t use it for a good reason: recent revelations of false science by agency contractors – California’s Mad River Biologists. Failure to pass “truth” tests 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 that would make the Obama administration look like it opposes endangered species protection – or is stealing people’s property and supporting fraud.
Operating under this mindset, the FWS becomes a political tool that uses science as its sword and shield. It cannot be an impartial arbiter. In fact, far from being honest and impartial, the FWS is rife with malicious officials, as witness Kent McMullen, chairman of Washington state’s Franklin County Natural Resources Advisory Committee, testified. His written testimony filled nine pages with outrageous FWS dirty tricks and skullduggery in his county – and in this supposedly free, honest, accountable country.
For example, announcements of critical habitat designations for the White Bluffs Bladderpod plant were deliberately kept “under the radar” in Franklin County, so that they could become law, before anyone could object. Only after Hastings asked county officials about it did the impending decision come to light.
McMullen said, “An 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 American people pay for data collection and research on threatened and endangered species through grants, contracts cooperative agreements, and administration of research permits. They pay the salaries of agency staff who collect data, and author, edit and publish papers based upon those data.” For the most part, regulations are based on those data, and these officials willingly go along with the crooked system.
“It is essential that the American people have the right to full access to those data in a timely manner,” Ramey continued. “A requirement that data and methods be provided in sufficient detail to allow third party reproduction would raise the bar on the quality and reproducibility of the science used in ESA decisions and benefit species recovery. Failure to ensure this level of transparency will undermine the effectiveness of the very programs that the data were gathered for in the first place.”
Then Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who chaired the hearing after Hastings had to leave, told the witnesses: “For all of you, this is a yes or no answer. I’m going to go down the line. ‘Would you agree that in this day and age of the Internet, it is both possible and preferable that actual data be used for ESA decisions that affect both species and people, and should the data be available for everyone to see online on the Internet?’” Mr. Shiff? “Yes.” Mr. Ashe? “Yes.” Mr. McCollum? “Yes.” Dr. Ramey? “Yes.”
They were all on the record, including Director Ashe, whose feet are now available for holding to the fire. Federal decision-making must be based on the best data, not just the best data “available.” That is in the public interest. It’s time we stopped tolerating fraud, abuse and property theft by federal regulators.
Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Portions of this report originally appeared in the Washington Examiner and are used here by permission.