Politics Trumps Science at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Politics Trumps Science at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Washington, D.C.— Political intervention to alter scientific results has become pervasive within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), according to a survey of its scientists released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, endangered and threatened wildlife are not being protected as intended by the Endangered Species Act, scientists say.

The two organizations distributed a 42-question survey to more than 1,400 USFWS biologists, ecologists, botanists and other science professionals working in Ecological Services field offices across the country to obtain their perceptions of scientific integrity within the USFWS, as well as political interference, resources and morale.

  • Nearly half of all respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings (44%) reported that they “have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species.” One in five agency scientists revealed they have been instructed to compromise their scientific integrity—reporting that they have been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document;”
  • More than half of all respondents (56%) reported cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention;” and
  • More than a third (42%) said they could not openly express “concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats without fear of retaliation” in public while nearly a third (30%) felt they could not do so even inside the confines of the agency. Almost a third (32%) felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists.

In essays submitted on the topic of how to improve the integrity of scientific work at USFWS, one biologist wrote, “We are not allowed to be honest and forthright, we are expected to rubber stamp everything. I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been.” By far, the most frequent concern raised by the scientists in the written responses was political interference.

“The survey results illustrate an alarming disregard for scientific facts among political appointees entrusted to protect threatened and endangered species,” said UCS Washington Representative Lexi Shultz. “Employing scientists only to undermine their findings is at best a mismanagement of public resources and at worst a serious betrayal of the public trust.”

A number of the essays spoke to the climate of fear within the agency. One biologist in Alaska wrote, “Recently, [Department of Interior] officials have forced changes in Service documents, and worse, they have forced upper-level managers to say things that are incorrect…It’s one thing for the Department to dismiss our recommendations, it’s quite another to be forced (under veiled threat of removal) to say something that is counter our best professional judgment.” A manager wrote, “There is a culture of fear of retaliation in mid-level management. If the manager were to speak out for resources, they fear loss of jobs or funding for their programs.” And a biologist from the Pacific region added that the only “hope [is] we get sued by an environmental or conservation organization.”

“Political science, not biology, has become the dominant discipline in today’s Fish & Wildlife Service,” concluded PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose, who worked with current and former USFWS employees on survey design. “Like the trainer who hobbles a horse and then laments that it does not run fast, the politicians who complain about the lack of ‘sound science’ in the administration of the Endangered Species Act are often the very ones who intervene behind closed doors to manipulate scientific findings when they impede development projects.”

Despite agency directives not to reply—even on their own time—nearly 30% of all the scientists returned surveys.


Read the summary of national and regional survey results

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