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Whooping cranes were on the agenda at hearing on politically driven science.

Whooping cranes were on the agenda at hearing on politically driven science.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

House panel holds hearing on 'politically driven science'—sans scientists

Representative Louie Gohmert (R–TX) is worried that scientists employed by the U.S. government have been running roughshod over the rights of Americans in pursuit of their personal political goals. So this week Gohmert, the chair of the oversight and investigations subpanel of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing to explore “the consequences of politically driven science.” Notably absent, however, were any scientists, including those alleged to have gone astray.

“The purpose of this hearing is to hear from real people, mammals called human beings that have been harmed by the federal government,” Gohmert said in opening the 29 April hearing, which featured testimony from three Republican-called witnesses on alleged misdeeds by researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS).

Neither of those agencies, however, was present to respond. The lone witness called by the panel’s Democrats was science historian Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, best known for her studies of how the tobacco and energy industries have attempted to sow doubt about health and climate research that poses a potential threat to their interests. Her take on the hearing: It “wasn’t really about the science at all,” but broader disagreements over environmental policy and the role of government.

One Republican witness, Kathleen Hartnett White, an environmental policy expert with the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, detailed how an environmental group had relied on “weak government science” to sue the state of Texas in a bid to provide adequate water supplies to habitat used by the endangered whooping crane. In particular, the group relied on FWS population surveys that it said showed about 20 of the big birds had died in 2008 and 2009 because of the state’s failure to supply adequate water. But the agency ultimately decided that the survey methods that produced those results were unreliable—undermining the environmental group’s position and contributing to a court defeat. (The case is now on appeal.) Hartnett White, however, argued the agency didn’t do enough to intervene in the litigation: “FWS’ silence was deafening,” she noted in her prepared statement.

Clara Beckett, a county commissioner from Bastrop County, Texas, asserted that FWS actions to protect the endangered Houston toad following a large 2011 wildfire created a “disaster within a disaster” that placed local low-income families in harm’s way. The county’s efforts to remove damaged trees considered threats to property, roads, and human life had been delayed, she alleged, because of government procedures designed to protect the toad. “Every tree that was cut, fell[ed], picked up, and hauled was inspected by a team of qualified toad monitors, and any work could not proceed until they said so. They were in charge,” Beckett said. “I personally expected tragedy every day the debris removal was prolonged.” (There was, however, no additional loss of life.)

Kevin Lunny, the former owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Company in Inverness, California, accused NPS of a “taxpayer-funded enterprise of corruption” to close his small seafood business, which occupied leased land on the Point Reyes National Seashore. During a long battle over renewing Lunny’s lease, independent reviewers suggested that park service officials had at times misrepresented research results regarding the environmental impact of the operation in order to bolster their case for closing it. And a National Academies study concluded that some worries about the oyster farm’s ecological impact weren’t warranted. In the end, however, Lunny lost his lease.

Oreskes didn’t directly wade into any of those issues. Instead, she took a different tack. “Witnesses here today are trying to cast doubt on environmental science, arguing that is politically driven, and we should not be using it to make important decisions,” she stated in her testimony. “As a guest of the democratic minority, I might be expected to attempt to refute the premise and argue that the science under consideration is not politically driven.”

“What I want to do is slightly different. I want to challenge the presumption that politically-driven science is bad science. That presumption—while widely held—is demonstrably false. … Some of the best and most famous science in the history of our country was driven by goals that were explicitly political.”

Oreskes went on to describe how work like the Manhattan Project, which built the first atom bomb, the Apollo space missions, and plate tectonics research had all been done by federal scientists driven by inherently political goals. And she portrayed the government peer-review process as, in some ways, more stringent and open to different voices than academic science.

Oreskes noted that scientists are human, too. “Maybe mistakes were made at places like Drakes. Maybe someone did miscount cranes,” she said. “These things happen. Science isn’t perfect, but that’s why we have peer review.”

Democrats at the hearing, for their part, were having a hard time stomaching what they saw as an irony. “This hearing purports to be about insuring scientific accountability and accuracy,” said Representative Jared Huffman (D–CA). “And, I have to say, that is a tough sell, given the majority party’s consistent record of attacking government science and underfunding science and research and frankly of flouting science especially when it comes to our climate and our environment.”