Government scientists have clear bias, study concludes

A team of researchers are putting a wrench in governments’ claims that they follow the “best available science” by showing a clear bias within state and federal scientific communities.

Published today in the science/news hybrid website, authors Jeremy Bruskotter, Robyn Wilson (both of The Ohio State University), and John Vucetich (Michigan Technology University), explored this bias by examining the controversial subject of delisting or continuing protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“We … contacted 593 individuals who published research related to grizzly or brown bears during the prior decade. We asked them to judge the risk (likelihood and severity) of seven threatsidentified by the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and to recommend the appropriate conservation status – delisted, threatened or endangered – for GYE grizzlies,” they wrote. “As expected, we found considerable evidence of uncertainty in experts’ ratings of risk (indicated by variability across experts). But surprisingly, judgments about the conservation status of grizzlies were unrelated to level of expertise. Rather, conservation judgments were strongly associated with the type of organization that employed the experts.”

The results showed that scientists employed by state and federal agencies recommended delisting of grizzlies by 49% and 41%, respectively. But only 17% of scientists in academic roles supported delisting, illustrating a clear and significant difference in opinion of the same scientific data.

“It is not inherently problematic that an expert’s judgment is affected, in part, by how he or she expects respected peers would judge a given circumstance,” the authors noted. “Nor is it necessarily problematic that judgments about conservation routinely depend on factors beyond science, like one’s values andemotions. It is, however, potentially problematic when groups of scientists disagree about the appropriate status of a species. Especially when theindividuals charged with providing guidanceon species recovery are comprised entirely of one of these groups – in the case of [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] grizzly bears, members of state and federal agencies who were 2-3 times more likely to advocate delisting.”

The scientists involved in this study made the point clear that they are not attempting to condemn the government’s scientists, but highlight the need for addressing this clear bias.

“We recognize this is likely to prove a challenging task,” they conclude. “Fortunately, agencies need not brave that challenge alone. Indeed, the first step in minimizing bias is broadening the type of experts with which agencies consult to include scholars well-versed in these tools.

The Fur-Bearers can only hope that government conservation divisions – including those here in Canada – heed this advice.

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