Interior’s new science policy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Under the veneer of “transparency,” a new policy will limit the Interior Department’s ability to make decisions using the best available science

Lucy Livesay


Researchers hike through Katmai National Park and Preserve | Katmai National Park and Preserve

Last week the Interior Department quietly implemented a new policy, titled “Promoting Open Science.” The policy, masquerading under the guise of transparency, significantly undermines the Interior Department’s ability to make decisions based on the best available scientific research and is the most recent in an administration-wide effort to undercut scientific input at the federal level.

The “Promoting Open Science” policy now requires Interior staff to utilize only “publicly available” data and “reproducible” studies in decision-making, with few exceptions. While reasonable sounding on the surface, this approach will require managers to ignore many longstanding and high-caliber scientific studies, undermining the agency’s ability to make good management decisions. The policy is another indication that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his team are ignorant of science and the rigors involved in peer-reviewed, published scientific research.

The Interior Department is responsible for managing over 400 million acres of public lands nationwide — from Zion National Park to the coal-rich lands of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Science is a critical tool for determining how to strike the right balance between conservation and development while maintaining America’s natural resources for future generations. Here are three reasons why the “Promoting Open Science” policy will undercut the use of sound science as a decision-making tool.

1. In some cases, data privacy is critical to maintaining scientific integrity

Interior’s new policy calls on agency scientists to “utilize and prioritize publicly available, reproducible, peer-reviewed science to the extent possible.” There are a number of reasons, some of which are legally-binding, why researchers would decline to publicly release their data. In the case of sensitive archaeological sites, Native American sacred spaces, precise locations of endangered species populations, industry trade secrets, or landowner names and addresses, making the data publicly available could have significant detrimental effects.

The new policy would also omit many older scientific studies that, while among the best scientific research available, may have been published before digital data archiving was available.

Field notes taken by a National Park Service scientist | Glacier National Park

2. A loophole in the new policy leaves the door open for data cherry-picking at the highest levels of the Interior Department

The policy was announced by Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who has been described as a “walking conflict of interest.” As it was written, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt has absolute power in determining which scientific studies can be used for decision-making. When a decision is based on “scientific conclusions that are not supported by publicly available raw data, analysis, or methodology, have not been peer-reviewed, or are not readily reproducible,” the new policy requires Interior staff to submit “an explanation of why such science is the best available information.” If the Deputy Secretary doesn’t agree with the reasoning, he can dismiss the research.

“This is an attempt to cherry-pick the kind of science that they want to put forward,” said Yogin Kothari, a senior representative at the Union of Concerned Scientists. By engineering a loophole within the policy, the top levels of the Interior Department can elevate scientific studies that fit within the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” narrative — which prioritizes reducing energy regulations and safeguards while ramping up development — and toss out studies which contradict it.

3. Interior scientists already report inappropriate political interference in science-based decision-making

According to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists survey of federal scientists working under the Trump administration, scientists within the Interior Department were facing political interference and censorship even before the “Promoting Open Science” announcement. At the Fish and Wildlife Service, 69 percent of scientists feel that the current level of consideration of political interests hinders their ability to make science-based decisions. At the National Park Service that number rises to 76 percent.

One National Park Service respondent wrote, “The constant attacks on science and facts by the current administration has negatively impacted scientists in the agency. Effects range from anger and frustration to depression and even opting to retire early. Twenty-five years of experience with 3 federal agencies and I’ve never seen anything like this — it is appalling.”

A National Park Service researcher watches a group of bison | Jacob W. Frank, Yellowstone National Park

This spring, then-Environment Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a similar transparency rule. The proposal has already had far-reaching impacts in the agency, where 82 percent of respondents report that political interests hinder their ability to make science-based decisions. With the Interior Department following a similar trajectory, the “Promoting Open Science” policy will likely have comparable effects: drops in employee morale as staff face unnecessary obstacles to their research.

After blocking Interior Department archaeologists from attending scientific conferences, attempting to censor the human-impact on climate change from a National Park Service Report, and retaliating against a senior scientist publicly working on climate change, the “Promoting Open Science” is the latest in a concerted effort to bury science. After all, with a political agenda that is often contradicted by the best available science, the best approach is to silence it.

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Lucy Livesay

Policy and Communications Manager | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO