The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The way to do research is to attack the facts at the point of greatest astonishment."....  ... Celia Green.
 

Commentary of the Day - June 28, 2006: Let the Chips Fall Where They May.

Political interference in academic research seems to be on the rise lately.  We have seen this in the recent attempts to harass and intimidate researchers in such diverse fields as climate change and medicine whose results conflict with a particular political philosophy or ideology.  The latest attempt to discredit the results of scientific research that uncovers uncomfortable facts is not in the cutting edge areas of global warming or stem cell research, but in the rather mundane area of forest management.

This time it's an Oregon State University graduate student in forestry who has been hauled before a congressional committee to defend research that has proven to be a bit uncomfortable for some in the logging industry.  The graduate student, Daniel Donato, discovered that salvage logging following a forest fire can hinder the regrowth of the forest.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the finer points of forest management, salvage logging refers to the process of cutting down the dead trees that remain after a forest fire for commercial use.  Salvage logging, which accounts for about one-third of the timber sales from national forests, is based on the assumption that clearing the burned over land of dead trees then replanting it with seedlings is the best way to help the forest recover.  Donato and his team examined areas that were burned in the Biscuit Fire that raged through Rogue River - Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon two years before the research was carried out.  Donato's group found that in burned areas where no salvage logging had taken place there was abundant natural regrowth, while in areas that had been logged the number of seedlings per acre was much less.  In addition, Donato's team found that in areas where salvage logging took place there was a substantial amount of fallen timber from the logging operations that remained on the forest floor.  This material could fuel future fires.

Much of the area that was burned in the Biscuit Fire is rugged and roadless.  Salvage logging there is carried out mostly by helicopter.  Logging crews are brought in by helicopter and the cut timber is removed by helicopter.  This is difficult and costly work, and there is no incentive to remove slash timber that has little economic value.  It also is more efficient and profitable to cut all the dead timber in a burned over area and then replant it than it would be to thin the standing dead wood and let natural regeneration take place.

Ordinarily, the one-page research note that Donato's group published on their work in an online edition of the journal Science would have gathered scant notice.  After all, it was a study that was limited both in scope and duration, and the conclusions were hardly earthshaking.  However, their publication sparked a firestorm of criticism because it came just as logging industry interests were pressing for the passage of a bill that would ease federal regulations on salvage logging in national forests.  Some of those interests were well connected both politically and to the leadership of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.  The Dean of the college, Hal Salwasser, is a former U.S. Forest Service official who publicly supported the salvage logging bill, which was sponsored by Greg Walden (R, OR) and Brian Baird (D, WA).  The college, itself receives substantial support from the logging industry, and recently had received a $1 million donation from the wife of the founder of Columbia Helicopters - a company that is heavily involved in salvage logging and had a strong interest in the passage of the bill.  Columbia Helicopters and its executives, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, also had donated $22,000 to Representative Walden.

Dean Salwasser and senior faculty members in the OSU College of Forestry attempted to discredit the Donato group's research, going so far as to attempt to prevent publication of the work in the print edition of Science.  The Bureau of Land Management briefly pulled funding from Donato's project, and Representatives Walden and Baird hauled Donato before a congressional field hearing in Oregon to explain his results.  Oregon State Senator Charlie Ringo made public several email messages from Salwasser to logging industry representatives that showed he was firmly in their camp.

To his great credit Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science and former president of Stanford University, refused to be intimidated.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Kennedy stated that "It certainly was an attempt at censorship..."  He decided to run the paper by Donato's group because it presented "sound, peer-reviewed research on a subject of considerable interest."

Donato's critics have responded that they were not attempting to censor the work, but were just responding to what they viewed as shoddy and incomplete research.  In particular, they have raised questions about the statistical analysis in the Donato paper.  Donato's group countered that six independent statisticians have examined their methods and have supported their conclusions.  (Science is planning to publish the critique of Donato's work along with a response from Donato's group.)

The important point that seems to have been lost on the politicians and the industry representatives is that disputes over the validity of scientific results need to be addressed in the setting of a peer-reviewed journal such as Science rather than in congressional hearings.

Academic researchers like Donato and his group who provide objective information on politically charged issues often find themselves under attack from all sides.  In this case they ended up in the middle of a dispute between environmentalists who would like to ban all salvage logging, and industry interests whose livelihood depends on logging.  Objective research results can help to inform policy debates, and in this case could lead to sound forest management practices.  However, academic researchers who provide objective information need to be able to gather and present this information without interference from vested interests on either side.  Deans and other university officials have an obligation to support that kind of independence.  Unfortunately, it's not so easy to maintain that independence when the powerful interests that are pressing the politicians to pass legislation favorable to them also are funding academic institutions.

 

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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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