The Interior Department didn't commit scientific misconduct by emphasizing the positive effects of the controversial removal of Klamath River Basin dams, according to a recently released report from an outside expert panel.
The panel weighed in on a press release and accompanying summary after a former scientific integrity officer alleged that Interior officials initially wrote them with political spin. Paul Houser, a hydrometeorologist, said that the documents misrepresented the science to paint an overly rosy picture of how the removal of the dams would affect salmon.
The dams -- located along the California-Oregon border -- are poised for removal as part of a multiparty settlement that aims to put to rest a years-long debate over how best to manage water in the basin. Houser said Interior misrepresented the facts in its eagerness to approve the settlement.
But the expert panel asserted that Interior officials merely wrote a "typical press release," with a summary that suffers from what it calls "false precision" in its attempt to summarize more than 50 federal studies. For example, a Summary of Key Conclusions claimed that removing the dams will increase production of adult chinook salmon by 81.4 percent -- a number that does not appear to exist elsewhere.
"While some (but not all) of the factual assertions made by Dr. Houser regarding the Summary and press release are correct, the issues he raises do not appear to constitute intentional distortion or omission of scientific facts, falsification of science, or compromise of scientific integrity," wrote the panel, which was convened by consulting firm Resolve. "For instance, failing to mention, in a brief summary document, all the potential issues raised in a voluminous scientific record does not constitute falsification. Well-intentioned, ethical persons will make different decisions on which of the many possible issues to highlight."
The panel also said that an email sent to Houser by an Interior official -- which reminds him that his emailed complaints are discoverable -- is not "automatically" alarming since it is normal practice for agencies to avoid putting preliminary discussions on the record.
"The Department must determine whether there are any grounds for further investigation -- however we are not automatically alarmed ... nor do we assume that either the email or the reported conversation constitutes evidence that there was a conspiracy to suppress scientific discussion on the Klamath," they wrote. "On the contrary, avoiding documentation of preliminary discussions is relatively standard practice. It is not sufficiently unusual here to suggest that there was an effort to suppress or alter science on the Klamath issue."
Houser was fired from Interior in 2012, prompting him to file a whistle-blower complaint claiming retribution for his criticism of the Klamath River Basin documents. He has since settled that complaint with Interior (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2012).
But Houser maintains that his scientific integrity complaint had merit -- and that Interior's handling of it was "misguided" and part of a broader problem of the agency never finding itself in violation of its own scientific integrity policy.
Among other things, Houser accuses Interior of giving the panel a narrow mission statement and then using a vague scientific integrity policy to "wiggle out of the allegations."
"The bottom line is that through a very narrow panel charge and through its own de-scoping, the important aspects of my allegation were not evaluated, and no actual investigation was done," he wrote. "So, it seems my allegation really has not yet been addressed, and I don't expect that it will ever be addressed by the DOI."
An Interior spokesman declined to comment except to say the report "should speak for itself."
The report was completed in August, but Interior only released it publicly last week on a new website devoted to its scientific integrity efforts. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- which legally represents Houser -- drew attention to the report this week, criticizing the agency for not fully investigating the complaints.
Indeed, the panel did not do a complete investigation. Instead, it determined that one was not necessary, and Interior agreed. PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch called it the latest example in a string of findings that let the agency off the hook.
"It is becoming obvious that Interior's scientific integrity process suffers from a glaring lack of integrity," he said in a statement. "These rules were created at the behest of President Obama to root out rampant political manipulation of science, yet in more than two years Interior has managed not to find a single instance of it."
Interior adopted its scientific integrity policy two years ago and has yet to find a complaint with merit. Ruch and Houser say it's a symptom of a faulty system, in which outside consultants are motivated to agree with Interior in order to ensure they will get future contracts.
"The solution is to have dedicated people outside chain of command" who don't have a career incentive, Ruch said. His group plans to push for improvements to the scientific integrity policy later this year.
In the meantime, Houser's complaint will probably go no further. Interior's scientific integrity officer, Suzette Kimball, agreed with the panel's report and "found no merit in the charges," opting not to launch an investigation.
But she wrote that Houser had identified "two areas in which DOI could improve its presentation of scientific information to the public."
"First, the implications of false precision in reporting results to the public need to be better understood by those who prepare public documents; and second, the issue of how uncertainty is represented in press releases needs to be addressed in order to insure that public documents are consistent with the Departmental Scientific Integrity Policy," Kimball wrote. "Although these recommendations do not affect your specific complaint nor our findings, they are nonetheless insightful and will be passed on to the appropriate policy maker."