Washington, D.C.— Political intervention to alter scientific results has become pervasive within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) but is particularly rife in Florida, according to a survey of its scientists by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The survey results echo charges of scientific fraud made by a Panther biologist whose case is coming up for hearing in early March.
The two groups surveyed more than 1,400 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologists, ecologists, botanists and other specialists working on Endangered Species Act and other wildlife or habitat protection programs across the country. Nearly a third (32%) of all agency scientists in Florida returned completed surveys, producing the following results:
- Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Florida respondents cite cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.” Also, more than two-thirds (69%) know of cases “where state, tribal or local . . . officials have injected themselves” into agency scientific decisions.
- Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings admit to instances where they have been “directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making . . . findings that are protective of species,” compared to 46% of respondents in the Southeast Region; and
- More than one-fourth (28%) reported having been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document.”
Andrew Eller, Jr., an 18-year USFWS biologist, had spent the past ten years working in the Florida panther recovery program. Last spring, he filed formal charges that studies relied upon by the USFWS to make decisions about proposed development in Southwest Florida inflate panther population and inaccurately minimize habitat needs. One week after that filing, the agency proposed his termination. On November 5, 2004, the Service finalized its termination of Eller.
“This survey provided an opportunity for Andy Eller’s colleagues at the agency to speak out without fear of becoming another casualty of politics, like Eller” stated PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose. “These results show that what Andy Eller experienced is not the exception, but is the rule – in other words, there are a lot of Andy Ellers in Florida.”
In essays submitted as part of the survey, one biologist called for “taking the politics out of the scientific decision making process; taking the fear and career intimidation off the backs of the biologists; [and] promoting professionalism and integrity among the scientists.” Another biologist addressed the “‘air of fear’ that staff experience just from asking questions of top management – even those non-scientific questions.” This employee added that there is a “fear of reprisals” for asking questions in the office.
In addition to biologists feeling pressure to compromise science, the survey found appallingly low levels of morale and high levels of distrust:
- More that three out of four (78%) of all respondents say they do not “respect the integrity and professionalism” of agency decision makers. Also, three-fourths do not trust agency decision makers “to make decisions that will protect species and habitats;”
- Two out of three Florida respondents believe their office supervisor will not “stand up for scientific staff who take controversial stands,” compared with only 36% in the Southeast Region and 29% nationally; and
- A majority (59%) of Florida respondents rate morale as poor or extremely poor and only 9% said morale was good.
“These survey results are a cry for help from federal wildlife scientists,” Roose added. “The essential dilemma is that they are paid to conduct defensible scientific reviews but face possible termination if they accurately report what they have found.”