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Fish biologists claim political interference over salmon studies

Threatened coho salmon have prompted environmental objections to dams on the Klamath River in Oregon.

E. R. Keeley, USGS

Seven US  fisheries scientists have raised a formal complaint claiming that a supervisor threatened to eliminate their research division after the team produced controversial model predictions of survival and recovery of the threatened coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon.

“This falls into the basket of obstruction of science for policy or political ends,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), based in Washington DC. The watchdog group filed the complaint of scientific misconduct on 7 January to the Department of Interior on behalf of the scientists who work at the US Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

For years, federal research on Klamath Basin fish and wildlife has been caught in an intense debate about whether to tear down a series of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. Many environmentalists have blamed the dams for salmon die-offs and ecological decline, but some researchers have questioned the magnitude of expected benefits from dam removal.

The letter alleges that Klamath Basin area office manager Jason Phillips violated the agency’s scientific-integrity policy, adopted in 2011 as part of US President Barack Obama’s nationwide initiative to protect science from political interference. According to the letter, the scientists believe Phillips intended to shut down the research group — known as the Fisheries Resources Branch — believing that the team’s work on salmon and other fish contradicted the plans and findings of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)  and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In an 8 November statement to the union that represents the scientists, Phillips outlined plans to reassign the scientists to other parts of the Klamath Basin office as vacancies arise and to gradually eliminate the Fisheries Resources Branch. In an interview, Phillips said that those plans have nothing to do with the group’s scientific results. “It’s never been about the findings causing problems,” he says. “Results are results.” Phillips acknowledges that he has fielded complaints from the FWS and NOAA about how some scientists in the group have responded to comments and criticisms during standard scientific reviews.

Pete Lucero, a regional spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, says that the move is part of a routine and periodic reorganization to increase efficiency. Lucero says that personnel conflicts represent one area of inefficiency.

The Bureau of Reclamation encountered other personnel issues in 2011 when it fired its scientific integrity officer Paul Houser after he questioned the accuracy of figures to be published about a dramatic rise in Chinook salmon numbers projected if the dams were removed (see ‘US integrity effort hits troubled water’). Lucero maintains that the two cases are unrelated.

Houser, now a hydrologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says, “If this is a precedent that they want to eliminate any research group that is controversial, I think it’s a really bad precedent.”

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    Kevin Matthews said:

    There may be a deeper problem here, in that much of what is routinely callled “science” in some of the not-primarily-scientific US federal agencies is more like engineering-level technical work, sometimes at quite a poor level, yet defended most doggedly.

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    Timothy Roberts said:

    It would be nice to understand whose results suggest what. Whichever way round it is, it’s not good to suppress research because it gives answers you don’t like. But I’d like to know whether the group being disbanded had produced evidence in favour of removing the dams, or against it. And what was this evidence? (or has it been suppressed so efficiently that we don’t know what it was?)

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