Washington, DC — Fisheries biologists working in one of the most contentious areas of the country were told to pack their bags but were not told the reason why, according to a complaint filed on their behalf today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) charging political coercion and censorship of science. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has announced plans to outsource all its fisheries science for the Klamath Basin in northern California and southern Oregon, where struggles over water supplies have roiled for decades.
In an unusual memo dated November 8, 2012, Jason Phillips, Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Manager, outlined his intention to reassign the seven Reclamation fisheries scientists in the Fisheries Resources Branch, stating that:
“Many perceive Reclamation’s efforts as inherently biased…There’s a concern that…in some cases we are simply carrying out studies to contradict the science of other agencies.”
Phillips had complained that Reclamation’s scientific work had caused him “problems” with other stakeholders and agencies. Yet when pressed for specifics, he contended “this data is not regularly maintained” and refused to elaborate. In a November 30, 2012 meeting, however, Phillips cited the life-cycle model for threatened coho salmon developed by the Fisheries Resources Branch as work he would not allow to be published or used by Reclamation due to unarticulated concerns raised by another agency.
“Requiring that science be non-controversial is like ordering your omelet made with un-cracked eggs,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who filed the scientists’ complaint under agency scientific integrity policies. “Scientific differences are supposed to be addressed through consultation, not suppressed by bullying and threats.”
Under rules adopted at the behest of President Obama, agency scientific work is not to be altered or censored for political reasons. In addition, agencies are required to use best available information in making decisions. The complaint seeks withdrawal of the Fisheries Resources Branch closure plan, adoption of a collaborative forum for disputes and discipline for Phillips and other complicit managers.
Reclamation does not have a good track record for tolerating diversity of scientific opinion. In February 2012, for example, Reclamation abolished the position of its own Scientific Integrity Officer, Dr. Paul Houser, after he raised questions about the accuracy of summaries of environmental analyses on expected effects of removing four dams from Klamath River. While his whistleblower complaint of retaliation has been resolved, his complaint of scientific misconduct has yet to be answered, nearly a year later.
“Our fear is that professionalism has become hazardous to our careers inside Reclamation,” said Keith Schultz, one of the seven scientists. “We hope this complaint will make a difference in allowing other scientists to come forward and be truthful about science.”