Fish and Wildlife Study Reminds Us That Informing Policy Doesn’t Mean Dictating Policy

Nature noticed this study (published as a Forum piece, so the writing is not as thorough as one might like) from the July 2012 issue of BioScience on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) process for determining protected habitats.  The study appears to be a review of the FWS peer review policy for listing decisions, habitat declarations and recovery plans.  It analyzed 169 reviews of 42 habitat declarations to see how often the final FWS action corresponded to the recommendations of those reviews.  I think the authors have made a hash of their data in this piece, but their main conclusion is that the final actions don’t correspond to the recommendations very much.  They certainly don’t correspond at a level the authors find satisfactory.

This drew my attention because of a comment in the Nature piece by one of the co-authors of the BioScience piece.  He described the FWS actions as ‘a scientific integrity issue.’  Which raises the perennial disconnect for many scientists.  Having scientific and technical information inform policymaking is not the same thing as having it dictate policy.  As Nature describes the FWS response to the study,

“the agency, in setting boundaries, must consider economic and national security concerns, and not just science. ‘Scientists may not always agree on the conclusions of a scientific analysis, especially in analyses as complex and challenging as critical habitat designations. In some cases, peer reviewers may disagree; in others, our biologists may not agree with the conclusions of individual peer reviewers.’”

Absent additional evidence, or further explanations of how the study authors see the political interference they refer to in the BioScience piece, I don’t think they have made the case that FWS action in this case qualifies as a scientific integrity matter.  While they acknowledge that other influences factor into agency decisions, they don’t seem to like it.  Near the conclusion of the article, they state:

“scientists within the USFWS need to be given leeway and clear direction in order to base their decisions solely on the best available scientific information. The loss of biodiversity is too serious a problem to let short-term political interests intrude.”

The authors aren’t wrong to want these things.  But they should recognize that they are advocating for changing how policy decisions are made, rather than restoring the role of science in decisionmaking.  They aren’t alone in this.

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3 thoughts on “Fish and Wildlife Study Reminds Us That Informing Policy Doesn’t Mean Dictating Policy

  1. Pingback: Fish and Wildlife Study Reminds Us That Informing Policy Doesn’t Mean Dictating Policy « A New Century of Forest Planning

  2. Hi Sharon,

    Happy to see the cross-link. You’re right, I’m generally sympathetic of making the process behind policy decisions as transparent as possible.

    I took a different tack in the post, but it should be said that I think the study/policy review is useful. I have plenty of trouble with the analysis of same.

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