Two headlines highlight the challenges associated with integrating scientific information into public policy
Posted in Conservation

Two stories covered in recent news highlight the challenges associated with integrating scientific information into public policy, including in the arena of agency decision-making respecting threatened and endangered species.  One, available here (The Observer, Feb. 18, 2012, by Robin McKie), covered the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  At that meeting, AAAS President and accomplished biologist Nina Fedoroff expressed profound dismay about what she perceives as a growing anti-science movement.  As was reported in The Observer, "[certain] institutions, acting as covers for major energy corporations, are responsible for the onslaught that has deeply lowered the reputation of science in many people's minds in America. This has come in the form of personal attacks on the reputations of scientists and television adverts that undermine environment laws."  The archetype example of the anti-science movement in action, according to sources cited in the article, is the debate over the scientific basis for the theory of anthropogenically generated climate change.

A second story, available here (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, 2012, by Neela Banerjee), covered the admission by Dr. Peter Gleick, President of The Pacific Institute, that he lied to obtain documents regarding climate change from The Heartland Institute.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, "[a] noted California scientist and environmental activist has admitted that he assumed a false identity to obtain and distribute internal documents from a libertarian group that questions climate change."  Dr. Gleick apologized for his actions explaining he was frustrated by attacks upon climate change science and scientists.  It is unclear how his actions may affect Dr. Gleick's professional life though it appears likely to have adverse consequences.  Fox News reports that "[t]he Task Force on Scientific Ethics for the well-respected American Geophysical Union has quietly expunged the name of committee chairman Peter H. Gleick from its website."

One could infer from the first of these stories that scientists are a monolithic group.  One could also infer that industry is a monolithic group at war with science and scientists.  But such notions are simplistic and untrue.  Neither Dr. Fedoroff nor Dr. Gleick represents or speaks for all scientists.  Likewise, The Heartland Institute does not represent industry in the United States.  Rather, industry groups have diverse perspectives on a range of issues, including global climate change.  For evidence of this, one need not look further than the Business Roundtable's Climate Resolve Initiative, a broad-based business initiative dedicated to helping its members reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Although neither story directly involved management of threatened and endangered species, both are pertinent to the issue.  Often times, decisions regarding the management of such species are made in the face of a dearth of knowledge about the life history and ecology of the species, its distribution, and abundance.  Even when data are available on the responses of populations to environmental conditions, decision-makers often cannot predict with a high degree of certainty how species will respond to management efforts.  These challenges are particularly vexing to address when management efforts affect society and galvanize one or more interest groups.  It would be naive to hope that the ideologies of interested stakeholders -- including the government, for-profit enterprises, and not-for-profit enterprises -- will not influence the agenda of scientists, and also the interpretation of data gathered and analyses conducted by scientists.  Rather, through the application of the scientific method and application of value-neutral procedures to falsify hypotheses, and by subjecting scientific research to scrutiny through a rigorously employed peer-review process, and other forms of critical assessment and attempts to replicate, perhaps we can hope to harness the marketplace of human knowledge to more effectively integrate reliable scientific information into public policy.

  • Paul S. Weiland

    Paul Weiland is Assistant Managing Partner and a member of the Environment & Land Use Group. He has represented clients – including public agencies, publicly regulated utilities, corporations, trade associations and ...

Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

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