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The Suppression of Science in the Pacific Northwest

In a recent Monthly Review article, Richard York and Brett Clark offer a historical analysis of how “ruling-class ideology gets smuggled into the damnedest places, including interpretations of the natural world.”1  The authors describe how ideology has shaped foundational concepts of natural history, enabling scholars to elaborate the theory of evolution in a way that justifies social inequality. If ideology influences even scientific theory, how much more would it impact practical science? Two recent events in the Pacific Northwest, concerning the science of salmon and forest ecology, provide telling examples of how knowledge is advanced or suppressed within government agencies and the scientific community — based on the interests of capital.

Suppressing the Science of Threatened Salmon

Should salmon raised in the plastic trays of a hatchery be included as part of a stream’s native salmon population?  No, according to scientists on the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel.  Yes, according to right-wing property rights advocates whose lawsuit originally removed all Northwest salmon from the list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants over an initial failure of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to explain and justify the distinction between native and hatchery salmon.  Scientific recommendations by the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel, of course, did not stop the Bush Administration from deciding in favor of industry and against the protection of Oregon’s coastal coho.  The NOAA Fisheries division announced on January 17, 2006 that it will not list the Oregon coastal coho salmon.2  A statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists explains the situation as follows:

The [Salmon Recovery Science Review] panel found that there was a strong scientific basis for distinguishing between wild salmon and hatchery-raised fish of similar genetic stock.  Providing extensive scientific documentation, the panel recommended that ESUs [evolutionary significant units] be specifically defined to include only wild, naturally spawning fish.  This central recommendation was deleted from the final report by the NMFS on the grounds that it was policy, not science.3

The justification to keep Oregon’s coastal coho salmon off the threatened list partly stems from the ideology of “technological substitution” for native species.  Why bother protecting the habitat of wild fish when you can artificially grow more in plastic trays?  This logic flies in the face of scientific literature and directly serves the interests of industrial timberland owners.  It therefore became the argument of choice by the Bush Administration’s agency managers.

The underlying material and historical reason for delisting Oregon’s coastal coho is that the coastal region has the highest percentage of land in the Northwest owned by industrial timber companies and that timber cutting in Northwest federal lands is severely restricted by the Northwest Forest Plan.  Therefore, corporate timberlands are almost the sole source of timber production in the range of the coastal coho.  A recent study of lumber mill profitability found that sawmills in the Northwest are the most profitable on earth.4  Given a private land base that is 80% owned by big timber capital, one can see that political interests and capital’s need for profit trump scientific evidence supporting the genetic diversity of wild species.  Oregon’s wild coho salmon will now be denied the habitat protection essential for its continued viability.

Suppressing Scientific Debate of Fire Ecology

The January 20, 2006 issue of the journal Science included a study by a team of forest scientists, led by a graduate student at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.5 Their study on the controversial Biscuit salvage logging area concluded that forests would best recover from wildfire when they are left alone for natural regeneration.  This finding contradicts the traditional industry view that logging burned trees and planting seedlings is the best course to take following wildfire.  What follows is a brief review of the controversy on the Science article unfolding in Oregon.  

Getting publishing in Science, among the most prestigious peer-reviewed publications, is extremely difficult, and one would think that the OSU’s College of Forestry’s faculty would be pleased by their student’s achievement.  Not at all in this case — the College of Forestry happens to be closely tied to the powerful Northwest timber industry.  Instead of showering accolades on it, some professors of the College of Forestry began a campaign to suppress the Biscuit fire research.  An article in The Oregonian reports that the College of Forestry’s dean sent a memo to faculty questioning the conclusions of the research paper.6 College of Forestry faculty went so far as to request that the journal Science censor the article from publication — an unusual and ridiculous move for academics to attempt and one which was soundly rejected by the editors of Science.

An attempt by powerful professors very much aligned with industry interests to stifle a peer-reviewed article damages the basic process of scientific advance — in this case, by hindering scientific debate on critical issues of forest ecology.  One must wonder: is intimidating fellow researchers and distorting the process of science an SOP in academic institutions subordinated to the profit-making imperative of industries whose funding has become increasingly critical to academia’s survival?

To counteract the trend of distorting science in the interest of more resource extraction and capital accumulation, we can look to the insights of dialectical biologists.  York and Clark7 state:

These dialectical biologists recognize that the best way to approach objective understanding is not to deny social influences on scientific thought, since it is impossible to exist in an intellectual vacuum, but rather openly to acknowledge existing biases in ourselves and society and work to overcome these constraints with self-criticism, honesty, and integrity.

Unfortunately, it appears that historical conditions have shaped ideological currents within Northwest forest science, engendering the appointments of faculty many of whom are — far from seeking to overcome their own biases through self-criticism — openly sympathetic to the aims of industry and go to extraordinary lengths to bury key data inconvenient to it. The recovery of the Pacific Northwest’s ecosystems after decades of industry-driven timber cutting, however, depends on the ability of scientists to speak freely and conduct honest research about salmon habitat needs and forest ecosystem integrity.

 

Notes

Richard York’s article “Corporate Forestry and Academic Freedom,” published by this journal after this article was already submitted for publication, covers some of the same ground examined here, concerning the salvage logging controversy.

1  Richard York and Brett Clark, “Natural History and the Nature of History,” Monthly Review 57.7 (December 2005).

2  Jeff Barnard, “Oregon Coastal Coho Won’t Go Back on Threatened Species List,” Statesman Journal 17 January 2006.

3  Union of Concerned Scientists, “Deleting Scientific Advice on Endangered Salmon,” July 2004.

4  PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, International WOOD Markets Research Inc., and the Beck Group, Global Lumber/Sawnwood Cost Benchmarking Report — 2004 Basis, September 2005.

5  D. C.  Donato, et al., “Wildfire Logging Hinders Regeneration and Increases Fire Risk,” Science 311.5759 (20 January 2006).

6  Michael Milstein, “Logging Study Sets Off Own Firestorm,” The Oregonian 20 January 2006.

7  York and Clark, op. cit.


Rebecca Clausen is a doctoral student studying Environmental Sociology at the University of Oregon.


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