Whitewashing the coverup

From the Russian River Times April 2011

As recently reported in The Russian River Times,  the National Park Service (NPS) withheld scientific data (automatic camera records) that contradicted its supposedly scientific claims of harm to harbor seals by workers at Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.  Dr. Corey Goodman, a local scientist and National Academy of Sciences Fellow, had filed a scientific misconduct complaint about the suppressed camera data; the recently released report by Department of the Interior (DOI) solicitor Gavin Frost purports to investigate the claimed scientific misconduct.

Dr. Goodman is the unidentified complainant in the Frost report, which reads more like the opening statement of a defense council for DOI and NPS management than an independent evaluation of scientific misconduct. It fails in the principal goal of investigating scientific misconduct: to remove tainted information from the research record and prevent it being used in the future. This is particularly vital in cases where research drives public policy that directly affects the citizenry.

NPS management knew of earlier scientific-misconduct charges by Goodman in 2007, which he filed after the Marin County Board of Supervisors asked him to review Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher’s claims of having data to support civil and criminal violations of environmental law by the owners of the historic oyster farm. These claims were made to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and repeated before the full Board of Supervisors at a public hearing on  May 8 2007.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ask Senator Diane Feinstein to intercede. Since then, through broken commitments and administrative maneuvering, DOI and NPS have managed to avoid review of scientific misconduct, a matter discussed in Dr. Goodman’s written complaints and in letters to NPS from the Lunnys (owners of the oyster farm). On September 13, 2006, Inspector General Devaney was asked by Congress to address the “institutional culture of managerial irresponsibility and lack of accountability” within the DOI. He described a major problem within DOI, namely, “intricate deviations from statutory, regulatory and policy requirements to reach a predetermined end.”  

The DOI record on Drake’s Estero fully supports Devaney’s statements. The Frost report is merely the latest in a long chain of such behavior. This problem was also brought to the attention of Jon Jarvis, then NPS Western Regional Director and Don Neubacher, then Superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, prior to a 2007 meeting in Olema between Senator Feinstein, local and state officials and national Park Service leadership, including then NPS Chief Mary Bomar, a DOI solicitor, Dr. Corey Goodman, California Fish and Game and Kevin Lunny.

 A local newspaper, the Point Reyes Light,filed a Data Quality Act complaint about the NPS “Sheltered Wilderness” report andconsulted with Dr. Brian Schrag, a scientific  ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, who made the following statement. “Some have charged that under the current administration, government scientific research has become politicized. One of the things that is worrisome if that happens is that the normal checks and balances of scientific research can be compromised. In such circumstances, appealing to internal procedures of a particular government agency may turn out to be futile.”

Dr. Schrag’s 2007 comment was prescient: the NPS failed to respond to any of several DQAs, as required by regulation, and the NPS and DOI have subsequently failed to follow generally accepted procedures in investigating scientific misconduct. For instance, the Frost report accepts ridiculous statements by NPS researchers to justify excluding the photographic data, such as the fact that the photos are fuzzy, were taken only once a minute, and not reviewed, etc.

These excuses, taken at face value, would invalidate thousands of scientific papers based on automatic camera evidence. In any scientific-misconduct investigation, one of the first steps is to examine the raw data. In fact, the case of the suppressed photographs and logs bears significant parallels to a recent case wherein Dr. Mark Hauser, of Harvard University, was found guilty of scientific misconduct.

Dr. Hauser’s troubles go back to 1995, when a researcher, Dr. Gordon Gallup, who questioned Dr. Hauser’s paper on behavior in tamarin monkeys, demanded to see the films of experiments on which Hauser had based his conclusions. Gallup is quoted in the 30 Sept 2010 issue of The Scientist; “When I looked at the tapes, I was absolutely shocked,” he said. “There was not a shred of evidence in any of the videotapes…”When Gallup asked for additional tapes mentioned in the report, Hauser told him that they had been stolen. Hauser was later forced to publish a paper showing that the results of the first paper could not be reproduced.

Hauser’s latest issues, extensively reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, resulted in his being found guilty of scientific misconduct after some of his graduate students bravely accused him of failing to consider contradictory data. In an almost exact parallel to the suppressed NPS photo data, the article says, “They then reviewed Mr. Hauser’s coding and, according to the research assistant’s statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes.” 

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smith, acknowledging the allegations and the results of the investigation, noted: “the key obligation in a scientific misconduct case is to correct any affected publications, and our confidentiality policies do not conflict with this obligation. In this case, after accepting the findings of the committee, I immediately moved to have the record corrected for those papers that were called into question by the investigation.”  The Dean’s letter states that Harvard sent its confidential report to the appropriate agencies, including the PHS Office of Research Integrity, the NSF Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, Hauser went ‘on leave’  pending the outcomes of these investigations.

The Department of the Interior and the Frost report show none of the steps taken by Harvard in its investigation of scientific misconduct, and NPS and DOI management have obstructed a fully independent assessment of misconduct in Drake’s Estero. The Department of Interior’s NPS science has been investigated by the DOI Inspector General, (who did not investigate the science, but only misconduct, which they found) the National Academy of  Sciences (which did not investigate scientific misconduct), and allegedly by the Frost report. A Marine Mammal Commission is forthcoming. In each case, the NPS apology mantra is repeated, that “mistakes were made.”  But though these mistakes have major consequences for the West Marin community, and the Lunnys and their oyster company, NPS has failed to identify the mistakes or corrective measures they have claimed to be making.

Lunny questioned Jarvis in a letter responding to his statements in a  Dec 27, 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Jarvis reinstated all the claims of harm caused by the oyster farm that he had previously retracted in an NPS document that corrected errors in the original NPS “Sheltered Wilderness” report. On  January 14, 2008. In response to Lunny’s request to identify corrections and any new research to justify his comments in the article, Jarvis wrote, ”I do not think long detailed point-by-point responses are productive…”

On May 5, 2009 Lunny again wrote to Jarvis, asking him to identify the mistakes and corrections that Jarvis acknowledged in his comments on the NAS report, which found that the NPS could not justify its contention that the oyster farm was harming the estero. Jarvis did not respond. Now the Frost report again states that mistakes were made without specifically acknowledging what they were or any remedies for the harm caused to the scientific record or the Lunny’s reputation. Thus, it is impossible to examine the errors now admitted by the NPS, to see if they indicate bias. But Dr. Goodman, in an earlier  instance, compiled a list of 25 errors in information submitted by NPS to the National Academy.

If NPS were merely sloppy, a  basic ‘coin flip’ test would show that the errors were equally divided in favor of NPS or the Lunny’s. Strikingly, every ‘mistake’ is in favor of the NPS position.

The possibility of this happening by chance is less than two hundred and ninety eight million to one. This represents the chance of a coin flip coming up tails 25 times in a row, to use Dr. Goodman’s number of errors, calculated using a binomial, i.e. ‘heads or tails’ probability calculation. Frost failed to evaluate bias in the admitted NPS errors in the earlier “Sheltered Wilderness” report, or the many changes made in the various iterations of the Becker report, or the significant reduction in the number of reported seal disturbances claimed by the Park Service, even before the camera-data revelations. These errors are all reflected in Dr. Goodman’s list.

DOI is allowing this clearly-demonstrated bias and data manipulation by the NPS staff to  continue, shown by the NPS document-reference list for the upcoming Environmental Impact Survey. The Becker paper, for example, now fully discredited by the suppressed photo data, is listed as a source, but the photographic evidence and logs noted in Dr. Goodman’s most recent complaint are once again withheld. Not only that, but the very people who should have been investigated are now conducting the EIS to determine the fate of the oyster farm. Even after millions of dollars of taxpayer funded studies, the fox is apparently still in charge of the chicken coop and has the keys readily to hand, and is still playing with the same loaded coin.

The point of ethics failure for NPS and DOI management was the 2007 Olema meeting. Mary Bomar, then head of the Park Service, reached an agreement with Senator Feinstein that Dr. Goodman and Tom Moore of California Fish and Game, who supervise the oyster operations, develop a study plan to review the existing science and ordered Jarvis to participate. Jarvis disobeyed Feinstein, stonewalled Goodman and Moore and submitted his own study plan to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for what was essentially a study of the Lunnys, rather than a study of scientific misconduct. At the same time, Jarvis denied data-quality act requests on the existing science, claiming that the NAS would investigate the misconduct that was the basis of the complaints, even while contracting with NAS to do the exact opposite. NPS prepared new ‘science’ for the NAS investigation in the form of the discredited Becker report, again in direct conflict with written agreements between Bomar and Feinstein.  Now the Frost report once again provides a convoluted interpretation of misconduct that lets Jarvis and NPS management off the hook.

All this protracted coverup ignores damage to the community, the Lunnys and public perception of government and scientific integrity.

It makes a mockery of the Obama science policy and all the many federal statutes, rules and regulations governing scientific misconduct.

It is time to have a fully independent investigation defined by those well versed in scientific ethics to decide who is responsible and deal with them accordingly.



About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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One Response to Whitewashing the coverup

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Members of the New National Academy of Science Panel on NPS Science in Drakes Estero | russianrivertimes

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