"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

-- The Dalai Lama

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Science? What Science?

From the article U.S. Scientists Say They Are Told To Alter Findings:
More than 200 scientists employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they have been directed to alter official findings to lessen protections for plants and animals, a survey released Wednesday says.
More than half of the biologists and other researchers who responded to the survey said they knew of cases in which commercial interests, including timber, grazing, development and energy companies, had applied political pressure to reverse scientific conclusions deemed harmful to their business.

When I was studying at the Biosphere I volunteered for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, surveying for the endangered species Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. There were two categories of these surveys: Research and Commercial. Commercial surveys are required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Basically, you have to make sure that there are no endangered species in an area you want to build on in order to conform with the law.

So, companies hire biologists and they get up at 2am and drive into the middle of the desert to play tapes of owls hooting. Then they listen hard and look around and make detailed records. Of course, I never saw any evidence of any of the owls because there are only like 3 left in the state. I exaggerate, but not by much.

I got criticized from both sides while doing this work, and it was a very valuable lesson. Other students told me that it was ridiculous to work on behalf on the Endangered Species Act because it did not go far enough to protect endangered species or habitat. Biologists told me that I may endure criticism from other biologists because I was "working for big business." (Even though I was not working for anyone, I was volunteering for US Fish and Wildlife, but whatever.) And, of course, company representatives moaned endlessly about the whole process - how it increased cost, building times, etc. I even heard about threats made against biologists, but luckily I was never directly involved in anything like that.

Scientists, like the ones mentioned in the article, are people too. They all have their own motivations. Some may have been idealistic when they began working and have since become jaded and don't mind changing reports as long as the paychecks keep coming. Some may just be hanging on, riding it out until "things get better." Some may feel like they can do more good from the inside and don't change reports, even with the possibility of removal. And so on and so on.

What is more clear cut is that it is never okay to falsify data or to change findings to fit an agenda. And it is absolutely never okay for the government to pressure scientists to do so.

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