Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by Flickr.com user Kevin Harber

Can Pres. Obama restore the integrity of federal science?

A reporter recently called me, asking what changes in environmental policy I hoped to see in an Obama Administration. I immediately thought of the specific issues that have troubled me over the past eight years: unregulated oil and gas exploration in the West, too few species protected under the Endangered Species Act, too many snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, the reckless quest to drill, baby, drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, etc., etc. And then it struck me that there was something far more fundamental that President Obama needs to do. He needs to restore the authority and integrity of the scientific work done by federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. For nearly eight years, the Bush Administration has systematically suppressed, altered, or disowned scientific findings that conflicted with its predetermined opinions. For example, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee in the Interior Department with no training in ecology or wildlife biology, pressured Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to change their findings on whether certain species belonged on the endangered list or the amount of critical habitat other species needed to survive. In other cases, she sent confidential documents about endangered species to allies of the industries that would likely be affected by conservation measures in order to determine if the proposed measures were acceptable to those industries. This sort of unethical behavior has several unfortunate consequences: It drives good scientists out of the federal government; it causes people to lose faith in the integrity and authority of the agencies charged with protecting America's natural resources; and it results in lots of litigation, which can paralyze the agencies. Steller Sea Lion In the long run, shoddy science is in no one's best interest-not the public, not the regulated industries, not the environmental community, and most certainly not the nation's natural resources. President Obama can do the nation (and the world) an immense favor by appointing people who understand that sound decisions cannot be made on the basis of unsound science. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- David Wilcove is professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs at Princeton University and one of the world’s leading experts on endangered species. He is the author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.