Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Interior has told its elite ecological scientists that they have to raise 20 percent of their own salaries and research funds from outside sources, according to memos released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This new “business practices” policy jeopardizes long-term research, skews scientific priorities and causes researchers to spend time scrambling for funds, say affected scientists in a PEER survey released today.
Over the past several months, Interior’s top ecological scientists are being told to collect larger and larger percentages of assigned agency overhead from research partners. Researchers working in at least three of the agency’s main science centers are responsible for obtaining at least one-fifth of their salaries from industry, academia or other government “customers.”
“This new fee-for-science approach means that critical long-term inquiries into the fundamental building blocks of nature will end up on the chopping block,” stated PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose, noting that basic biological research is at a disadvantage in fundraising relative to short-term applied projects that promise tangible results for financial backers. “Under this latest Bush administration scheme, science that lacks immediate economic value apparently has no value.”
The scientists given fundraising targets are within the Biological Resources Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey. BRD consists of biologists, ecologists, hydrologists and other specialists who study how ecosystems function and what is required for environmental health.
To gauge how the emerging “business practices” was affecting research activity PEER sent a survey to all 858 BRD scientists. More than a fifth of the scientists responded and delivered an overwhelmingly negative review of the fundraising policy and the status of science within Interior:
- More than three out of four respondents found Interior’s “business practices” failing to produce any positive results. Only one in 20 found any positive impact;
- Two in three did not believe “research funding matches research priorities.” Three out of four contended that long-term research receives inadequate support; and
- More than six out of seven said that BRD lacked the resources “to adequately perform its mission” of providing basic “scientific understanding and technologies needed to support the sound management and conservation of our nation’s biological resources;”
As one scientist wrote, “Directing scientists to generate salary not only creates a work environment that can compromise the objectivity of science but also switches a scientist’s creativity from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of economic reward.” That concern was echoed in scientists’ assessments of their own effectiveness:
- More than three out of five admitted that their effectiveness as a BRD scientist was lower or much lower than it was three years ago;
- Nearly two out of three registered decreased job satisfaction. Barely one in ten maintained that morale within BRD was good. No respondent said morale was excellent. Little more than a third “would recommend that young scientists consider BRD as a career;” and
- More than four in five felt administrative demands interfered “with my ability to conduct research.”
Scientists also reported being in a double bind of being told, on one hand, to solicit outside financial support but, on the other hand, being saddled with excessively high overhead charges that made BRD projects unattractive to potential sponsors. Nearly nine out of ten respondents agreed that “overhead costs for research projects limit which research projects will be undertaken.”
In a survey essay on how to improve science at BRD, one scientist pleaded for “adequate base funding so I don’t have to spend my time begging my salary from customers through reimbursable contracts.” Another wrote: “It is ridiculous for USGS to take the limited dollars the NPS, BLM, FWS and other agencies have for research into their crucial needs and use it to pay for our pencils.”
“The thrust of Interior’s ‘business practices’ is to reward slick sales techniques and office politics above scientific rigor or ecological value,” added Roose, who conducted the survey. “This policy change strips research independence from Interior’s top scientists, reducing vital ecological research to nothing more than a cost center.”
Most of the BRD scientists had been drawn from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service a decade ago under former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who planned to create a new agency called the National Biological Survey. Congress blocked Babbitt’s plan and the researchers were ultimately housed within the U.S. Geological Survey.