USGS Scientists Object To Stricter Review Rules

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

A new Bush administration policy for reviewing scientific documents before publication has angered some U.S. Geological Survey scientists, who say the elaborate internal review of their work may impede them from conveying information to the public.

The new requirements, which were unveiled in July but are still being put into practice, call for staff scientists to submit all reports and prepared talks to managers to determine whether they meet the agency's scientific standards. They also require researchers to alert the agency press office of any work involving "potential high visibility products or policy-sensitive issues."

P. Patrick Leahy, USGS associate director for geology, said the agency spent more than two years drafting the rules to ensure all of it scientists are subject to the same sort of rigorous scientific review before they send their work to be published.

"What we're doing is ensuring the scientific excellence of USGS products," Leahy said in an interview. "Peer review has been the stock and trade of this organization for years and years. How we do that has been different depending on what part of the organization you were in. . . . What we want to do is [have] our scientists working together in concert with one another."

But James Estes, a marine biologist who has worked for more than 30 years at the USGS's Western Ecological Research Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that although he has not encountered problems in the past, he and his colleagues fear their work may be stifled.

"I feel as though we've got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do. And to me that's a very scary thing," Estes said, adding that it will be a cumbersome procedure. "There's been no effort yet other than to intimidate everybody, but to me it's censorship. . . . I think they're afraid of science. Our findings on ecology could be embarrassing to the administration."

Leahy acknowledged that some agency scientists are resistant to the idea, though USGS officials see it as a helpful reform.

"It's the old thing, in concept it makes a great deal of sense," he said. "In practice, if you have a change to what you've been doing for a long time, you're not happy with it."

Under the policy, a USGS employee must submit any scientific document for a peer review that may involve scientists either inside or outside the agency. A supervisor oversees the process, making sure the reviewers are qualified and looking at how the scientist in question responded to any criticism raised by the reviewers.

Rama Kotra, a senior scientist in Leahy's office, said the review might take just one week for a simple document, but in the case of a complex scientific study "it would take much longer than that," possibly six months.

USGS spokeswoman Barbara Wainman said that the press office would not be conducting the peer reviews and that political appointees would not be involved, because the agency director is the only USGS person appointed by the president.

USGS researchers have tangled with Bush officials over administration policies. In 2002, the agency published a study suggesting that energy exploration on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could hurt a Porcupine caribou herd; a week later the agency issued a report saying drilling would not damage the herd.

The controversy over the peer review process surfaced a day after the Union of Concerned Scientists announced that 10,600 scientists have signed a statement complaining that the Bush administration has undermined the "scientific integrity" of federal policymaking. Michael Halpern, the group's outreach coordinator for scientific integrity, said USGS scientists at this week's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco had approached him to complain about the new peer-review rules.

"They perceive it as another hoop to jump through in order to get scientific documents approved," Halpern said, adding that the policy may not be a problem if officials make sure it's a "valid review process."

"USGS always puts together policy-neutral scientific documents. That's why their reputation is impeccable."

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