Saturday, February 25, 2006

OSU research paper sparks heated subcommittee hearing in Medford

Damn. I knew I should have taken the day off and made the trip to Medford.

Yesterday's hearing down south on the controversy surrounding OSU grad student Daniel Donato's paper has hit a very sensitive nerve. The legislators backing the the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act (HR 4200) believe that Donato's research threatens their pet bill. But Donato wasn't backing off his research:

The controversy was sparked during intense grilling of Donato by U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., co-sponsor with Walden of the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act (HR 4200), a forestry bill that would speed decisions on post-fire salvage.

"Our goal was present the data and let people draw their own conclusions," Donato said. "We didn’t want to make any specific management recommendations."

"I find that disingenuous," interjected Baird, who seemed particularly upset by the title of the article.

"The grammar of it, my friend, is a generic continuous generalization," he added. "If I was your reviewer, I would have said your title was deliberately biased ... people are taking this to imply far more than the study suggests."

He charged the study was published to influence policy, an accusation Donato repeatedly rejected.

"This does not preclude salvage as a management option," he said of the study results.

Baird's challenge of Donato seems pretty shallow--especially given that Donato's study makes no recommendations. Getting his back up about the title is a reach, at best. Baird's grilling of Donato is a dissapointment. I would hope that Democrats could at least agree as a group to allow science inquiry to go forward and allow for an understanding of that science.

The study is funded by the Bureau of Land Management--who pulled the funding saying government funded research cannot specifically reference bills before Congress. Donato's paper was published in the journal Science. The journal, rather than Donato, inserted a reference to a congressional bill, giving the BLM an excuse to yank the money. But the funding was restored due to public outcry and political pressure.

Several members of Congress have asked for an investigation of the BLM, noting the Bush Administration's history of trying to subvert anything scientific that interferes with their ability to make a buck. Given that the funding was restored, I doubt that will happen.

Retired BLM Medford District Field Manager Rich Drehobl also testified. Drehobl was the individual who originally asked for the study. Given the reports of Drehobl's testimony, he was hoping for a different outcome:

"The notion the BLM is stifling academic freedom is absolutely false," he said, noting the agency’s concern was that the contract was not being met.

While he disagreed with Inslee on nearly every point, he agreed that an investigation was in order, but one which considers why the study is being allowed to continue.

I wonder what size waders Drehobl wears when he makes these kinds of unadulterated bullshit statements. There was absolutely no problem for the BLM with Donato's project until the outcome didn't work for them--then they tried to pull the money. It was a blatant political overreach by some eager beaver Bush appointee at the BLM. Drehobl should be ashamed of himself.

Donato appears to have handled the public pressure and heated debate with humility and grace, something a few of these local government employees could take a lesson from.

Another individual who has shown himself to be an honorable person in this is the dean of the OSU College of Forestry: Hal Salwasser. Salwasser stepped forward to offer public regret for his role in not curbing professors who tried to block Donato's study and for not congratulating Donato on his achievement. Salwasser has also worked to make sure that legislators and the public understand that Donato was not responsible for the insertion of the bill into the Science article.

Salwasser is in a delicate position. As dean, he needs to draw money and prestige to his school--much of which comes from the timber industry due to shrinking state funds. But at the same time he must maintain scientific objectivity and integrity. Its clear he's trying.