Gutsy science wins the day

 

For any scientist, publishing in Science magazine marks a giant success. It's one of the world's premier scientific journals, and only about 7 percent of submitted manuscripts are accepted. But Dan Donato, a second-year graduate student at Oregon State University's College of Forestry, overcame the odds.

Donato was lead author of a study on the impact of salvage logging on the area burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire — 500,000 acres in some of Oregon's most remote and beautiful wildlands. In a nutshell, Donato found that doing nothing was better than logging, because cutting down trees killed seedlings and also increased the fuel load on the forest floor. Reviewers found his paper met the high standards of Science, and it was accepted. That should have been the end of the story.

Instead, last January, John Sessions, a professor of forest engineering at Oregon State's College of Forestry, and several colleagues wrote to the editors of Science in an attempt to delay publication of the study and add a rebuttal. Sessions and some of his colleagues have long advocated salvage logging, promoting its ecological benefits. Donato's paper contradicted those arguments, and the disagreement turned ugly.

Sessions had been lobbying Congress for a bill aimed at opening the Biscuit fire area to intensive salvage logging. After the Donato paper came out, he accused the Donato team of political motivations and attacked the quality of the team's research. Sessions was quoted as saying "We were concerned that a poor piece of reporting would be in the scientific literature for good. There was the chance they could revise it before it was ink. We were trying to help them out."

This sounds helpful, but I am a scientist, and when scientists disagree with the methods or findings of a study, we have established rules to follow. A letter is written to the journal, explaining the scientific objections to the work. In Science, this is called a technical comment. This process is a commonplace occurrence, one that the Oregon State critics surely understood.

But rather than follow the rules of engagement, opponents took other actions. Anonymous threats were tacked on Donato's door. The Bureau of Land Management, which had funded Donato's research, suddenly had second thoughts. The agency froze his promised money, and only resumed payment after a public outcry. An editorial in Science chastised Oregon State faculty critics for attempting to suppress the paper. Applications for graduate admissions plummeted, and the strong reputation of the college suffered. The reputation of Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry, also suffered after an Oregon state legislator held hearings and required Salwasser to release his e-mail communications. The e-mails showed that Salwasser was deeply involved in efforts to help the Donato critics, that he worked closely with the timber industry and even referred to environmentalists as "goons." He has since survived a vote of no confidence and apologized for his behavior.

The editor-in-chief at Science understood the Donato critics' letter to be an effort at suppression; not an act of kindness. In his words: "We told the letter-writers that we don't believe in censorship at Science0; and that they could put their scientific objections in a technical comment." Eventually they did so, but the original study has withstood extraordinary scrutiny.

One lesson stands out. Everything from academic relationships to political machinations affects science. Sessions' congressional lobbying, Salwasser's messages to and from Forest Service staffers and timber bosses, reveal relationships that were uncomfortably cozy. It is true that scientists — just like everyone else — come to work with personal beliefs. But science works best when the minds of scientists are open and their biases held in check.

It's heartening that in this embarrassing case, the academics attempting to do the censoring were exposed and criticized. Brilliant science, untainted by politics, will be critical to help us navigate the next several decades as we face such giant challenges as global climate change and flammable forests throughout the West. We need science more than ever before and must protect the ability of scientists to do work free of censorship.

Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a conservation biologist who works at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon.

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