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For Immediate Release: Mar 18, 2008
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

FEDERAL WILDLIFE SCIENTISTS CAUGHT IN ETHICS TUG-OF-WAR

Conflicting Orders Make Politically Sensitive Scientific Work a Career Minefield


Washington, DC — In an effort to control damage from a series of scientific scandals, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has placed its own professionals in an ethical bind by issuing contradictory and confusing directives, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Agency scientists, on one hand, are encouraged to be open and honest but, on the other hand, are under orders not to share any agency scientific “documents, assessments and drafts” with outsiders.

On January 28, 2008, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) adopted a groundbreaking “Scientific Code of Professional Responsibility” which tells agency scientists to –

  • “Place reliability and objectivity of scientific activities, reporting and application of scientific results ahead of…allegiance to individuals and organizations”;
  • “Distinguish between positions that are rooted in scientific information assessments and those rooted in organizational values, and make this distinction in written and oral presentations”; and
  • “Disseminate scientific information to the scientific community and the public to promote understanding and appreciation for fish and wildlife and their habitats.”

These laudable precepts stand in sharp contrast to “guidance” issued by FWS Director Dale Hall on February 3, 2006 in which he warned scientists to avoid “premature briefings”:

“[I]t is imperative that all documents, assessments and drafts remain inside the Service, except for discussions as appropriate with recognized federal and state peers.”

“Rather than being clear and unambiguous, the Fish & Wildlife Service has cloaked its ethics guidelines in mixed messages and contradictory side orders,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a PEER survey of FWS scientists showing widespread confusion as to what they are allowed to say or write. “Basic principles of scientific openness and honesty should be government-wide, not confined to the agency that is the source of political embarrassment this quarter.”

PEER also points to an order by Hall forbidding agency biologists from considering any genetic information when assessing threatened or endangered species. This 2005 order, which was intended to alter findings to the detriment of wildlife, has not been retracted. Earlier this month, the Interior Inspector General announced that it is investigating whether Hall violated the new FWS Scientific Code by his unexplained delay to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act despite admitting that there was scientific consensus that listing was justified.

“How can we expect scientists to obey a code of conduct that their director ignores?” asked Ruch, pointing out that the code threatens scientists with disciplinary action for violations. “Not surprisingly, political appointees who improperly skew or suppress scientific findings are exempt from ethics rules.”

Another big conflict stems from the FWS Code urging agency scientists to “support and participate in professional societies” yet the Interior Ethics Office advises that involvement in these scientific societies as more than mere members constitutes an improper appearance of a conflict-of-interest.

“Public agency scientists should be able to speak the truth and pursue scientific excellence without fear of official retribution,” Ruch concluded, noting that Congress is slated to debate extending legal protection to federal scientists this spring. “Why is that so hard?”

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Look at the new FWS “Scientific Code of Professional Conduct”

View FWS Director Hall’s directive to keep scientific documents in-house

Revisit Hall’s order forbidding biologists from considering genetic information

See Inspector General complaint charging FWS Director Hall with violating his own policy

Review the results of PEER survey of FWS field scientists

Examine the gaping holes in Interior Secretary Kempthorne’s Ethics Initiative

Read call for participation in scientific societies free of conflict accusations