Science, politics uneasy partners


The Oregonian

MICHAEL MILSTEIN Two words -- "sound science" -- have become a catch phrase for those on all sides of contentious decisions over logging, water, wildlife and other natural resource issues that define the destiny of the West. It echoes through the Klamath Basin, the snowy slopes of the Cascades and the Northwest's sentinel forests.

Politicians toss the term like confetti at a party, while others use it as an angry catchall for everything that a bad decision lacks. Land managers may treat it as their Holy Grail, a silver bullet that will tell them what decision to make.

To scientists, however, the only true science is sound science.

The key, they say, is whether the science is applied soundly, and whether the public and the land managers who rely on it understand what it says and -- just as important -- what it doesn't.

Science may have its own quality controls, but that does not mean it should go unquestioned.

"Don't let someone tell you, 'Science made me do something,' " said Thomas Mills, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland. "Science helps you understand the consequences of a decision, and who wouldn't want to know the consequences of their actions? But people make decisions, and that's the bottom line."

And those who make decisions should know that in science, as in life, there are few absolutes. Rarely, if ever, will research prove that if a forest is logged or a reservoir lowered, an endangered species will go extinct. Instead, it will suggest a range of possible likely consequences that decision-makers must then balance with public -- and sometimes political -- values to decide which way to go.

"It really isn't a science question in that case; it's a value question," Mills said. "People need to decide at what point the risk is too great. That's a value choice."

The biggest blowup recently in the realm of land and wildlife science did not involve scientific findings as much as scientific procedure. But it's a good example of how science, and even much-heralded tools such as DNA analysis, may be no more foolproof than human nature.

It erupted from a federal attempt to chart the range of lynx by checking for hair from the threatened cat on scratching posts scattered through Western forests.

A pilot project had yielded false reports of lynx in Oregon and Washington after fur samples were inadvertently contaminated. It is still unclear what happened in that case, but "something went very badly wrong," acknowledged Scott Mills, a University of Montana professor who is overseeing a broader four-year lynx survey for the Forest Service.

His survey differed from the earlier faulty project. Mills developed and published a protocol -- a set of scientific guidelines -- for the survey in a journal reviewed by other researchers, a process known as peer review. He also tested the protocol before and during the survey.

But seven state and federal biologists gathering hair samples for Mills in Oregon and Washington also sent him tufts of hair from captive or stuffed lynx to see for themselves whether this lab would get it right. They did not tell the lab, making it a "blind" test, or what scientists sometimes call a "blind control."

A Jan. 10 editorial in the scientific journal Nature concluded that the scientists were trying to correct for a poorly designed study that should have incorporated such blind controls in the first place.

Mills argued that his study had plenty of built-in controls. If no one had caught the outside interference, he said, it could have undermined his protocol and results. "If there hadn't been an investigation, we wouldn't have known (the hair) was pulled off a wall mount."

Either way, politicians and critics of the federal Endangered Species Act jumped the biologists in what Nature called a "lynch mob," blaming them for "biofraud" and claiming that the biologists were trying to trigger protections for wildlife that didn't exist. Some questioned the reliability of unrelated research, shaking the roots of wildlife science to a degree that surprised even Scott Mills.

"I'm surprised at how polarized it's become, that politicians are going to extreme lengths to portray that all biologists everywhere are fraudulent," he said.

"Two different languages" The speed with which science can go from a quiet academic pursuit to a political battering ram may reflect the gulf between scientists and politicians, lawyers, land managers and others who decide the future of public lands and resources. All have different goals, which may color the way they apply the work of others.

"Often the expectations aren't clear on either side," said Deborah Brosnan, president of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, a Portland nonprofit group that mediates environmental disputes. "Often the manager wants the scientist to solve a problem, but they speak two different languages."

Just because a scientific paper is peer-reviewed, for instance, does not mean it's unassailable fact. Rather it means that other scientists have found the reasoning and methods to be sound, a kind of "quality control in the scientific profession," Brosnan said.

Two peer-reviewed papers may draw opposite conclusions, said Steven Courtney, vice president of SEI. That does not mean either is wrong. It does mean science is not a clear-cut, yes-or-no pursuit -- a real but frustrating limitation in a world where public land decisions can affect lives and livelihoods.

The Endangered Species Act calls for using the "best available" science, which may not be enough science to satisfy everyone.

Brosnan has called for remaking the peer review process into a more open system, a kind of impartial group discussion, so those involved in environmental disputes better grasp the realities of science and do not view it merely as a tool to get their way.

Much is not yet known Indeed, some environmental mandates hinge tightly on unknowns.

A provision of the Northwest Forest Plan, which governs logging in the region, requires costly surveys for obscure slugs, snails and other creatures at logging sites because no one knows how common or rare they are.

Federal agencies withheld water from farmers in the Klamath Basin last year not because they knew it would help protected fish, but because they could not be sure that releasing the water would not hurt the fish.

Sometimes the heated atmosphere of environmental disputes might limit the progress of science itself. Stan Geiger, a Portland wetland ecologist who has studied the Klamath Basin for years, recalls that one scientist refused to review another's study because of the threat of lawsuits over water use in the basin.

Such divides keep scientists from sharing information, so neither the public nor decision-makers learn everything that researchers have learned about the vast basin and its wildlife. Different agencies with roles in the basin may rely on only a slice of science when making critical choices.

"There is no research plan that anyone is following, no quality assurance protocols everyone has agreed to, so it opens the door to suspicion," Geiger said. "It's comforting to say we need 'sound science,' because we do. But it's another thing to work through it when there are all these reports out there and nobody is looking at the whole picture."

You can reach Michael Milstein at 503-294-7689 or by e-mail at


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