U.S. Fish and Wildlife Scientists Gain Right to Publish
Elimination of “Policy Review” for Technical Articles to Reduce Political Interference
Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will now allow its scientists to publish without management approval, a major step toward protecting scientific integrity from political manipulation, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). During the Bush administration, political re-writes of Fish & Wildlife Service scientific studies on endangered species became fodder for scandal, congressional hearings and lawsuits – with some of that litigation still ongoing.
In an August 19, 2009 announcement to agency scientists, the following changes were highlighted:
- Articles and papers by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service scientists will no longer have to undergo “policy review” by agency management prior to being submitted for publication either inside or outside the Service. The announcement states that the reason for the change is “to get our employees out from underneath an ill-defined, cumbersome, and potentially stifling process of ‘policy review;’”
- Studies not officially endorsed by the Service must bear a simple one-sentence disclaimer that their contents “do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service”; and
- The Fish & Wildlife Service itself is starting two peer-reviewed journals as outlets for publishing scientific and technical articles relating to agency decisions.
“This is a sea change in the scientific freedom given to service professionals,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has highlighted past abuses in political alteration or suppression of agency science. “Now the question is why the right to publish should not be extended to all federal scientists.”
While applauding agency efforts aimed at “encouraging and empowering employees to publish and to do so using their official agency and office affiliation,” PEER notes that there are gray areas of danger for scientists:
- It is not clear whether previous Fish & Wildlife Service directives barring disclosure of “draft” documents have been rescinded, meaning that scientists could be punished for prematurely submitting manuscripts;
- Conflict of interest strictures restraining interaction between agency scientists and professional societies or conservation groups remain in place; and
- Most significantly, scientific disclosures do not enjoy any legal protection against agency retaliation and so scientists who publish articles not favorably received could find their careers derailed.
Many of these issues, including whistleblower protection, are supposed to be addressed in a government-wide initiative launched by President Obama back in March. Although the President’s order set a July 9 deadline for promulgating new scientific integrity policies, nothing has been produced nearly three months later.
“We are hearing on a daily basis from agency scientists in agencies such as NOAA that nothing has changed except their management has become even more secretive,” Ruch added, pointing out that the vast majority of managers who interfered with scientists and retaliated against perceived dissidents remain in place. “Thousands of government scientists are still waiting for the rhetoric about transparency and integrity to become reality.”