Obama, like Bush, seems to be stifling salmon science

Scientists at NOAA found themselves squelched during the Bush administration. Now, scientists are raising similar concerns about the Obama team, from which they expected support.
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Klamath River Dam

Scientists at NOAA found themselves squelched during the Bush administration. Now, scientists are raising similar concerns about the Obama team, from which they expected support.

The other day, Save Our Wild Salmon associate director Dan Drais called my attention to a Los Angeles Times article about the Obama administration's apparent failure to stop skewing science and bullying scientists, as its predecessor had (infamously) done. "Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out," Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger reported on July 10. " 'We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration,' said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers."

You want to know why the government still claims dams aren't so bad for salmon, or for the Southern Resident Killer Whales that eat them? The paper reported, "In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations."

I asked Ruch how many such complaints his organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) had received. He said three. Had PEER received similar complaints under Bush and even Clinton? "Absolutely," Ruch said.

Justin Kenney, NOAA's director of communications and external affairs, told me, "I know of no instance in which any NOAA scientist was pressured to come to any conclusion other than what the best science available dictated regarding dams or any other avenue of inquiry." Of course, Kenney said, "science doesn't dictate policy," (and it shouldn't, although it should inform policy), so "policy decisions may differ from scientific findings." But he suggested political pressure on NOAA scientists is unlikely, because "NOAA Fisheries' science centers, where our scientists reside, are physically, administratively, and financially separate from the corresponding regional offices (in this case in the Northwest and Southwest), where policy decisions are made."

Ruch didn't buy that. "The last time we surveyed NOAA Fisheries field staff in 2005," he said, 'ꀜno one ventured the opinion that they were insulated from pressure because they are "physically, administratively and financially separate from the corresponding regional offices.' 'ꀝ

Five years ago, PEER and the Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed "more than 460 NOAA Fisheries scientists in offices across the country." They reported that "(a) strong majority (58 percent) said they know of cases in which high-level Commerce Department appointees or managers 'have inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries determinations;' and more than half of all respondents (53 percent) are aware of cases in which 'commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.' " The two groups announced that "political pressure is also reflected in the agency's scientific and technical output: More than one third of respondents working on such issues (37 percent) have 'been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that are protective' of marine life.' "

"If (the agency scientists) reported being subjected to pressure in 2005," Ruch asked, "what has changed to cancel or nullify those pressures?"

Since Obama's approach to Northwestern salmon issues is indistinguishable from that of Bush, there has been a lot of speculation in some circles about just who might be pulling the strings or calling the shots. It's assumed that the Northwestern congressional delegation must at least be complicit in this business-as-usual approach. What about the pressure on agency scientists? I asked Ruch if he had a sense of how high in the pecking order this sort of pressure might originate. He replied, "Jim Lecky still heads the NOAA Office of protected Resources."

Two years ago, after NOAA awarded Lecky a gold medal, PEER said that in 2002, "Lecky was the official whose actions led to a massive fish kill on the Klamath River. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit later ruled that Lecky'ꀙs handiwork 'doesn't even pretend to protect' endangered salmon and 'ignores the life cycle of the species.' "

The organization also said that in 2005, a "Commerce Office of Inspector General report found that Lecky improperly altered a key NOAA biological opinion on the effects of diverting Sacramento River water from the San Francisco Bay Delta to thirsty Southern California to find no jeopardy to threatened and endangered species." And in October, 2008, "Lecky directed agency biologists that since impacts on coral and other marine species as well as effects on ocean temperatures and acidity cannot be traced to any one source of greenhouse gas, no consultation was required on greenhouse gas-producing projects under the Endangered Species Act."

When I asked Kenney about this, he checked, then told me flatly that: "Mr. Lecky was not involved in drafting oversight or approval for any of those biological opinions." I asked Ruch about that. He responded that I should simply check the "jurisdiction of OPR, headed by Lecky and (the) list of species, including anadromous fish, for which it claims jurisdiction.'ꀝ (NOAA websites explain that OPR is "a headquarters program office of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service, or NMFS) . . . with responsibility for protecting marine mammals and endangered marine life," including 28 listed populations of Pacific salmon and steelhead, and the Southern Resident Killer Whale.)

In any case, PEER believes that the problems go beyond individual officials to a nationwide policy that restricts scientists' freedom of speech — even when they're off the job. On July 12, PEER filed a rule-making petition, asking Commerce Secretary Gary Locke "to rescind a Bush administration policy requiring National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agency scientists to obtain pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, about scientific topics deemed 'of official interest.' "

Three years ago, the Commerce Department issued an administrative order that prevents agency scientists from disclosing information without prior review or approval, even if they do it on their own time, acting as private citizens. There's an exception for basic research that would normally be subject to peer review. However, "all written and audiovisual materials that are, or are prepared in connection with, a Fundamental Research Communication, must be submitted by the researcher, before the communication occurs, to the head of the operating unit, or his or her designee(s), for approval in a timely manner.'ꀝ The order says that "approval or non-approval (may not) be based on the policy, budget, or management implications of the research." An employee can appeal a decision within the Department of Commerce.

For a non-official communication of interest, any NOAA "employee shall provide to the head of the operating unit or Secretarial office, or their designee(s), timely advance notice of the occurrence and subject matter of ... All written and audiovisual materials that are, or are prepared in connection with, a Non-Official Communication of Interest must be submitted before the communication occurs to the head of the operating unit or Secretarial office, or their designee(s), for a review to be concluded as soon as is reasonably practicable (but, under no circumstances whatsoever, shall the period of review exceed fourteen days)."

"This is a gag order on scientists and has no place in an administration that claims to be transparent," Ruch said in a press release.

PEER's rule-making petition argues that the Commerce Department order "restricts free speech rights, creates a chilling effect on scientific communications, and undermines both the principles of the 'Public Communications' policy and President Obama's goals for scientific integrity and transparency within Executive branch departments."

Kenney referred me to a NOAA "media guidance" that says the administrative order "explicitly allows researchers to publicly discuss the results of basic or applied research in science or engineering — termed 'Fundamental Research Communications' — without prior approval from NOAA's Office of Communications. This includes media interviews. In these discussions or interviews, you may draw scientific conclusions from your research."

The media guidance also asks employees to "note that only review, not approval, is necessary for Non-Official Communications of Interest. Any comments or conclusions by the reviewer are only advisory in nature. In other words, NOAA will not prohibit your Non-Official Communication of Interest, although you do remain responsible for compliance with applicable laws and regulations."

Ruch responded that while "approval (of a Fundamental Research Communication) may not be withheld 'based on policy, budget, or management implications of the research,' it does not define these terms and limits any appeal to within Commerce. Thus, NOAA scientists cannot, for example, discuss findings on the condition of post-spill Gulf waters, without approval."

He also noted that 'ꀜNOAA scientists face discipline ... for not submitting (a non-official communication of interest) in advance — even if review is only 'advisory in nature.' "

Finally, he suggested, "Compliance with other applicable laws and regulations can also be restraining on outside speech. The point is that NOAA specialists are subjected to a confusing, vaguely intimidating code of rules that simply leaves most of them in the dark — and thus afraid to speak."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.