Robert T. Lackey

A few months ago I was asked to present my thoughts about what scientists can do to reverse the decline of public trust in the policy impartiality of scientists.  The importance of good science is broadly accepted across all political ideologies, but the level of trust in scientists (as separate from science) has probably never been lower. Here is the transcript of that talk presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, March 6, 2020, Bend, Oregon:


I appreciate the opportunity to wrap up this session:  “Communicating Science Across Different Domains.”   Yes, it is certainly a fitting topic for all of us — and based on the range of perspectives we’ve heard this morning — it reinforces its timeliness.  Further — these days — given the privileged standing afforded science in the legal and policy world — and the potential for its misuse — both intentional and unintentional — it is absolutely critical for all of us all “to get the  science question right.”

OK — my specific assignment today is to answer this question:   How should scientists assure that they are sticking to science — and not drifting into policy advocacy?

I am very sure that each of you frequently see examples of “advocacy masquerading as science.”  I know I do — every day!   And — for those of us who are scientists — and those of us who work at the interface of science – policy – and management — how do we avoid this?

Let me start with a simple “role playing” exercise.

First ― imagine that you are now in the spotlight — having been summoned to the state capitol to provide information to the Natural Resources Committee of the Oregon State Senate.   Great career opportunity!

Second ― imagine that the Committee is faced with a contentious question:   whether they should officially support — or oppose — the construction of a dam designed to store water to help alleviate August droughts.   And — be assured — dams are always politically controversial!

Third ― you are a scientist who has studied in great detail this particular proposed dam.  In short — you are indisputably a scientific expert on the topic.

What is the proper role for you – a scientist?  This is not a trick question — but it is also not a simple one.

My blunt answer:  follow Charles Darwin’s recommendation for scientists who find themselves in such circumstances — develop a heart of stone!

Why exactly did Darwin call for scientists to develop a Heart of Stone?  For sure — today his advice might seem a bit passe in this era of trigger warnings — safe spaces — and postmodernism!   But — what exactly are the alternatives to a heart of stone idea? — and why did Darwin not support these?

At a basic level — legislators — policy makers — and the public — expect scientists to even-handedly present scientific information relevant to the question under consideration.  Seems simple enough!   And — it is hard to argue against this expectation — this idealized view that you heard way back in Political Science 101 — right?

But — more fundamentally — what exactly — is scientific information?  And — equally important — what information is not science?  In short — what is this thing everyone casually labels as “science?”  After all — relatively speaking — the notion of science is only a few hundred years old — at least it has only been broadly popular for a few hundred years.  And — for sure — there are many other ways to acquire information — and indeed science is only one.

Francis Bacon popularized the basic principles of the “scientific method” several hundred years ago.  This is the reason why modern science is sometimes referred to as “Baconian Science.”

To be considered scientific information — it must have 4 characteristics.  In philosophy — as described in their often opaque — even cerebral — philosophical jargon — they are called the “big 4.”

First, the information must be rational — that is — it relies on the senses.  Second, it must be acquired systematically —  a path that is clearly explained.  Third, it must be testable — others can evaluate the results — it is not based on faith.  Fourth, the results must be reproducible — others following the same procedures and methodologies will come up with the same answer.  If the results cannot be reproduced — it is back to the drawing board!

But — there are other kinds of knowledge — and these are not better — or worse — but they are not science.  For example — knowledge gained through experience is ubiquitous — but it is not science.  A common example is fishermen’s knowledge accumulated after years on the water — or perhaps passed down over generations based on a sort of collective experience.

Most definitely — experiential knowledge may be a terrific source of information — but it does not possess the 4 essential characteristics of science.

Think back to Darwin’s time — the dominant faith affecting science was what might be called the classical Christian view of creation.  These days — in my experience — the dominant faith in the areas of science that I work — is what is often called “Green Religion.”  In its simplest formulation — this faith assumes that natural ecosystems — those undisturbed by humans — are inherently superior to human-altered ones.  And — applying a similar theological litmus test — native species are a priori superior to non-native ones.

Don’t get me wrong — there is absolutely nothing inappropriate — or appropriate — with religious or faith-based postulates — but they are outside the purview of science.

But in Darwin’s time — it was not Green Religion — but rather Christian theology that conflicted with the scientific method.  In Darwin’s time — scientists were expected to accept upfront the creationist view of the origin of species — and most did so voluntarily.  But — Darwin argued — do your research — test your hypotheses against the observable facts — draw your conclusions.  Stop there!   Do not presuppose anything!  In short — as uncomfortable as it might be — Darwin encouraged scientists to develop a heart of stone.

But even if a scientist follows Darwin’s advice to the letter — that scientist must be trusted.  Thus — managers — policy makers — and especially the public — would like to assume that a scientist is presenting straight — unbiased facts and interpretations.  But in reality — the question is always there — is that scientist sticking to the science — or is he slanting the science to cleverly push a particular policy preference?  As a practical matter — if a reader or listener trusts a scientist — that reader or listener will almost certainly accept the veracity of what is being presented by that scientist.

OK — the central question still remains — are scientists trusted by the public these days?  In essence, given that trust is essential for scientists to play a useful role in policy making and management — what do the national polls show?

First — the good news — there have been a lot of polling done on the trust question.  Now the bad news — no poll that I could find addressed fisheries — or any other aspect of natural resource management.  The closest discipline I could find was “environmental science” — for sure not a perfect fit — but it will have to do.

OK — to what extent does the public trust scientists on the topic of environmental issues?  The results?  In a Washington Post/ABC national poll — 40% — 4 in 10 — said they place little or no trust in the impartiality of scientists.  But — even more disturbing to me — the other 60% were not all that supportive — they were lukewarm in their level of trust of scientists.

In another more recent national poll — this one by the PEW Research Center — barely a third of the respondents said environmental scientists provided fair and accurate information all — or most of the time.

Why such a low level of trust?   We can speculate about what has caused this loss of trust — and many people have.  Regardless — there are some things that scientists themselves can do to help rebuild trust.

The first thing that we need to do is to eliminate “stealth policy advocacy.”

The second is to stamp out normative science from all aspects of the scientific enterprise.

Now — the stealthy part — normative science is very similar in appearance to regular or traditional science — but it has an embedded or hidden policy preference.  And the challenging part — it is often very difficult to pick up on this embedded policy preference!

Don’t be so sure that you are not at risk for normative science.  Why?   Detecting normative science is not as easy as it might appear.  After all — what is being presented:

  •  Looks like regular science
  •  Sounds like regular science
  •  Is offered by people who appear to be “scientists”

Even experienced policy makers and managers can be deceived!  What chance does the general public have?

Let me circle back to the example I started with — the proposal to build a water supply dam — and the proper role of scientists in the decision-making process.  Let’s have a little more role-playing — imagine that you are a world expert in some ecological discipline.  You have been assigned to a blue ribbon team of similarly elite scientists.  Your job is to determine the likely ecological consequences of building a dam on this river.

OK — exactly how would you describe the scientific results to that Senate Committee — or to the public?

Would you be tempted to use the term “degradation” to describe the river with the dam?  If you do — you have slipped into normative science.  Why?  — because you have made an assumption that a free-flowing river is preferable to a dammed one.  Perhaps it is better policy-wise — but not better scientifically — just different — a value judgment that others should make — not scientists.

Or — you could take the exact same scientific information and label the river with the dam as “improved.”  After all — it will provide badly needed water in late summer — but the relative importance of that goal is a political determination — a value judgment — not a choice for scientists to make.  Again — the science is the same — the only thing that has changed is that you have embedded a different policy preference.  No other change!

This is so common these days that many listeners will not pick up on it!  How should scientists report these results?  My answer — scientists should use terminology that does not presuppose a value judgment — nor presuppose a policy preference.

In short — in this example — I suggest using the word “alteration” as being much more policy neutral.  Using “alteration” in this example does not imply that either state of the ecosystem is preferred policy-wise.

Let me wrap up — what should scientists do — my recommendation — play the science straight up — do not build in subtle policy preferences.  Be alert.   Test your wording for signs of policy bias.

For sure — there are temptations aplenty to co-opt scientists — mostly they come from policy advocates and politicians.  Whatever the temptation — avoid falling into the trap of stealth policy advocacy.  Leave the advocacy to advocates — stick to science.

And remember Charles Darwin’s advice — he was dead-on all those years ago — a scientist needs a “Heart of Stone.”

Thank you!


Video Recording


Robert T. Lackey

Many of today’s ecological policy issues are politically contentious, socially wrenching, and replete with scientific uncertainty.  They are often described as wicked, messy policy problems (e.g., reversing the decline of salmon;  deciding on the proper role of wildfire on public lands;  what to do, if anything, about climate change;  worries about the consequences of declining biological diversity;  making sense about the confusing policy choices surrounding notions of sustainability).

Wicked, messy ecological policy problems share several qualities:  (1) complexity —  innumerable options and trade-offs;  (2) polarization — clashes between competing values;  (3) winners and losers — for each policy choice, some will clearly benefit, some will be harmed, and the consequences for others is uncertain;  (4) delayed consequences — no immediate “fix” and the benefits, if any, of painful concessions will often not be evident for decades;  (5) decision distortion — advocates often appeal to strongly held values and distort or hide the real policy choices and their consequences;  (6) national vs. regional conflict — national (or international) priorities often differ substantially from those at the local or regional level;  and (7) ambiguous role for science — science is often not pivotal in evaluating policy options, but science often ends up serving inappropriately as a surrogate for debates over values and preferences.

As if they are not messy enough, ecological policy issues may become further clouded by skepticism about the independence of scientists and scientific information.  Much of the available science is tendered by government agencies, companies and corporations, and public and private organizations, as well as myriad public and private interest and advocacy groups.  Each arguably has a vested interest in the outcome of the debate and often promulgates “science” that supports its favored position.

All ecological policy problems have unique features, thus there are exceptions to every generality, but are there lessons learned that can be broadly applied?  Like all axioms, mine are not universally true, but are applicable in most situations.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 1 — The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game

Probably the most sobering reality for the uninitiated is that selecting any proposed policy choice results in winners and losers.  The search for a “win-win” choice, which sounds so tantalizing to decision makers, is hopeless with even superficial policy analysis.  There are always winners and losers even though people running for office may try to convince the voters otherwise.  This axiom is why policy making is sometimes described as “the political process of picking winners and losers.”

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 2 — The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs

Benefits are the consequences of a policy option or decision that are categorized as good outcomes.  Benefits are sometimes measured solely in terms of money, but are more broadly encompassed by all the desirable things that are most likely to happen.  Conversely, the costs are the undesirable outcomes that are likely to happen (often, but not always, measured in monetary terms).

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 3 — The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population

Democracies operate on delegated compromise validated by periodic voting.  To gain sufficient political support (votes) for a proposed policy, it is prudent for the decision maker to spread the benefits across a sufficiently large number of people to garner majority support.  The corollary is that those (including future generations) who bear the costs should be a minority and the smaller the better.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 4 — Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making

With many ecological policy questions, those who bear the costs, the losers, have a disproportionately greater influence on the decision making process.  While policy analysis tends to evaluate the rationality of competing policy arguments, the political process tends to weigh breath and vigor in support of each competing policy option.  Issues of perceived fairness are important in the political process, but difficult to quantify in policy analysis.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 5 — Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences

Technocrats, as I apply the label, are individuals with scientific training who are responsible for implementing law or ecological policy.  There is an understandable impulse by technocrats to insert what they think is or should be the appropriate public policy goal or option.  For example, should ecological restoration be aimed at recreating the ecological condition that existed at the beginning of the Holocene, just prior to 1492, or at the end of last week?  The answer requires making a value judgment — a policy choice that is necessarily a political judgment — and it is not a scientifically derived decision.  Ecologists and other scientists should assess the feasibility and ecological consequences of achieving each possible restoration target.  Selecting from among the choices, however, is a societal enterprise.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 6 — Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive

The lament that “if we just had some better science, we could resolve this policy question” is common among both scientists and decision makers.  Calls for more research are ubiquitous in ecological policy debates.  In most policy cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge.  Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science and facts.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 7 — Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments

Scientists and policy analysts become frustrated when they fail to recognize that political debates are partly logical argument and partly image.  Negative images are often considered more effective in swaying people than positive ones.  In fractious ecological policy debates, proponents often spend more energy demonizing their opponents than sticking to rational policy analysis.  My experience is that such tactics are often effective in policy debates;  many people are moved by negative arguments.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 8 — If something can be measured accurately and with confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making

In my experience, most scientists prefer to talk about things that they can measure with some degree of confidence.  Fish population abundance, recruitment rates, optimal habitat, toxicity levels, and field surveys are within our comfort zone.  We can put confidence limits on these numbers;  we can duplicate the data gathering year after year;  we can often forecast future conditions with some degree of confidence.

  • Ecological Policy Axiom 9 — The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values

In my experience, many citizens get frustrated in ecological policy debates because the advocates of various competing choices often seem to argue over semantic nuances rather than getting on with making decisions.  The precise meaning ascribed to key words is important and is often the battleground over what policy option is ultimately selected.  The debate over definitions is really a policy debate.  How should pivotal words such as “ecosystem health,” “sustainability,” “degraded,” “biological integrity,” “endangered,” “wild,” and “impaired” be defined?  Definitions chosen will lead (at least in the mind of the uninformed) to a particular policy option.  Thus, the debate over what might appear to be semantic nuances is really a surrogate debate over values and policy preferences.


Many of today’s ecological policy issues are contentious, socially divisive, and full of conundrums.  They are, however, typical of those that professional natural resource and environmental scientists will confront, both now and for the foreseeable future.  Those of us who provide information to help inform the participants involved in ecological policy debates need to be cognizant of and appreciate the importance of scientific information, but we also must recognize the reality that scientific information is just one element in complex political deliberations in a democracy.



Robert T. Lackey

More than two decades ago, while Deputy Director of EPA’s national research laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon, I presented a talk to a group of community activists about why salmon populations along the West Coast have dropped to less than 5% of their historical levels.  I’ve given such talks many times so I was confident that I had heard just about every question that might be asked.  I was wrong.

The opening question was asked by a well-known political activist.  He was direct, pointed, and bursting with hostility:  “You scientists always talk about our choices, but when will you finally tell us what we SHOULD do about the dramatic decline of West Coast salmon?  Quit talking about the science and your research and tell us what we should do!  Let’s get on with it!”

From the nods of approval offered by many in the audience, his impatience with science and scientists was broadly shared.

What does the public expect from scientists regarding today’s ecological policy issues? Some examples of such policy challenges include the decline of salmon;  deciding on the proper role of wildfire on public lands;  what to do, if anything, about climate change;  the consequences of declining biological diversity;  and making sense of the confusing policy choices surrounding “sustainability.”

The lament “if we just had some better science, a little more data, we could resolve this policy question” is common among both scientists and decision makers.  Calls for more research are everywhere in ecological policy debates.

In most cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge.  Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science, data, and facts.

In a pluralistic society, with a wide array of values and preferences competing for dominance, the ecological policy debate is usually centered around whose values and preferences will carry the day rather than over scientific information.

So what was my answer to the emotionally charged question from the political activist?

It was: “Science, although an important part of policy debates, remains but one element, and often a minor one, in the decision-making process.  We scientists can assess the ecological consequences of various policy options, but in the end, it is up to society to prioritize those options and make their choices accordingly.”

He wasn’t pleased.



Robert T. Lackey

In science, when you see the words “natural,” “healthy,” “degraded,” and “biological integrity,”  all these terms, and many others, have embedded assumptions about what someone or some organization regards as a desirable value choice, a preferred policy choice.

These and similar words have no place in science.  They are classic examples of normative science.  Their use in scientific publications is simply policy advocacy disguised as science.

The words are fine for management, expected in policy advocacy, but not OK in science.

Here is a test:  first, put on your science hat.  Now imagine that the public owns a 5,000-acre stand of old-growth (never logged) forest which is being considered by a government agency for an alternative use.  Scientifically, is it preferable to (1) preserve this landscape as is, or (2) remove the trees and build a wind farm?

Neither ecological state is preferable scientifically!   At least not without assuming, perhaps unwittingly, a policy preference, a value choice.  If the science relevant to this policy question is presented in such a way to subtly favor either policy option, it is a classic example of normative science.

It may look like a scientific statement.  It may sound like a scientific statement.  It is often presented by people who we assume to be operating as scientists.   But, such statements in science are nothing more than “policy advocacy masquerading as science.”

Anyone following basic scientific principles should say:

            “Pristine ecosystems are neither superior, nor inferior, to human-altered ones.  Different, for sure, but not better or worse.”

Let me wrap up by offering Charles Darwin’s advice to scientists.  Remember that he was under a lot of social pressure to make his scientific findings conform to the dominant political and theological views of the time.  He offered pithy guidance to scientists:

          “A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.“

Strict, uncompromising, and unequivocal advice, but spot-on for scientists both then and now.



Robert T. Lackey

Despite a few recent newspaper headlines heralding several “record” salmon runs, most salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are a mere shadow of their pre-1848 levels.  Further, even most of these relatively small remaining runs are largely maintained by releases of hatchery-raised fish.  Wild salmon — typically defined as those whose parents spawned naturally in natural habitat — comprise only a small portion of most runs and their overall abundance is a sliver of historical levels.

The decline has been well known and for more than 160 years there have been concerted efforts to recover salmon runs.  Especially during the past three decades, the extent and cost of formal recovery efforts for wild salmon have substantially increased — in large part a response to requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While using hatcheries to sustain relatively large salmon runs is plausible — although technically challenging — the requirements of the ESA relative to wild salmon have made the role of hatcheries in sustaining or increasing runs legally contentious.

In my interactions with professional colleagues over many years, they agree — usually only when speaking unofficially — that current efforts will not successfully recover wild salmon to abundances that would assure self-sustainability and support sizable sport and commercial harvest.  Such a level of abundance would need to be at least a third or more of the typical pre-1848 run size.

Even with the very large expenditures to recover wild salmon, what pushes the most knowledgeable people to the stunning conclusion that these well-meaning efforts will fail?

To succeed, a wild salmon recovery strategy must address several overarching and undisputed realities about the West Coast that have developed over many years.  Without addressing these realities, any wild salmon recovery strategy will fall far short of expectations.  It will be added to a long list — well over a century in the making — of noble, but failed salmon recovery strategies.  Even if society continues to spend billions to restore wild salmon runs, these efforts ultimately will be only marginally successful.

What are these realities and how must they be changed to recover wild salmon to even a third of their historical level?   Let’s look at the four key ones.

Fact 1:   Overall, wild salmon abundance south of the Canadian border, is very low and has been so for a long time.  Most spawning runs are far less than 10% of their pre-1848 levels.  Over two dozen Endangered Species Act “species” (distinct population segments) are now listed as threatened or endangered.  Many runs have already disappeared and more will follow unless there is a reversal of the long-term downward trajectory.

Fact 2:   We have been well aware for a long time of the main causes of the dire state of salmon runs along the West Coast.  These causes are well documented scientifically and include mining, dams, water pollution, habitat alteration, over-fishing, irrigation water withdrawals, predation on salmon by many species, competition with hatchery-produced salmon and other, often non-native fish species, and many other causes.

Fact 3:   Anywhere wild salmon were once plentiful (Europe, Asian Far East, Eastern North America), the decline in their abundance is roughly inversely proportional to the area’s growth in the human population.  Over decades and centuries, as the human population expanded in these regions, the size of salmon runs declined to minuscule levels.  Since 1848, the West Coast is playing out similarly for wild salmon.  For example, from a pre-1848 human population level of a few hundred thousand, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are now home to 50 million people. Over the same time period, wild salmon abundance in the four States has declined from roughly 50 million to a few million.  And the future?  Assuming expected human population growth in these four States, by 2100 they will be home to somewhere between 150 and 200 million people — a tripling or quadrupling by the end of this century — barely 80 years from now.

Fact 4:   It is not just the sheer number of humans (Fact 3), but their individual and collective lifestyles that reduce the abundance of wild salmon.  In the absence of dramatic changes in economic policies and life-styles, future options for restoring salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels will be greatly constrained. For example, by 2100, with 150-200 million people living in the 4 West Coast states, consider the additional demand for houses, roads, Costcos, Starbucks, air conditioning, drinking water, office buildings — the list is a very long one.

What about the potential of current wild salmon recovery efforts to change the long-term, downward trajectory for wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho?

Corollary 1 To succeed in restoring wild salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels, a wild salmon recovery strategy must change the four facts or that strategy will fail.  If society only continues to spend billions of dollars in quick-fix efforts to restore wild salmon runs, then in most cases these efforts will be only marginally successful and the long-term downward trajectory of wild salmon will continue.  It is money spent on activities not likely to achieve recovery of wild salmon, however, it helps people feel better as they continue the behaviors and choices that preclude the recovery of wild salmon.  As important, it also sustains a jobs program for scientists and other technocrats by funding the salmon recovery industry.  This industry has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise and collectively forms an influential advocacy group.

Turning to the future to assess what is realistically plausible, maintaining sustainable populations of many highly valued non-native West Coast fish species (e.g., bluegill, walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, brook trout, and striped bass) is feasible, because these species, unlike salmon, are well adapted to the greatly altered West Coast aquatic environments.  Overall with a drastically altered aquatic environment, and not at all surprising, many nonnative fish species are doing well.  Nor should it be surprising that wild salmon are struggling to hang on in environments for which they are poorly adapted.

In conclusion, if society continues to ignore these four facts and the corollary, no one should be surprised by the lack of long-term success of wild salmon recovery efforts.  Perhaps these billions of dollars being spent to recover wild salmon should be considered “guilt money” — modern-day indulgences — a tax society and individuals willingly endure to alleviate collective and individual remorse about the sorry state of wild salmon.  After all, it is money spent on activities unlikely to achieve the recovery of wild salmon, but it perhaps helps many people feel better as people continue the behaviors and choices that essentially preclude wild salmon recovery.



Robert T. Lackey

Several years ago, toward the end of my career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the “outreach” staff in Washington, DC, telephoned me in Corvallis and posed a question:  “In science, why isn’t the notion of ecosystem health a useful metaphor to convey scientific information?  I see the metaphor used all the time.”

When I provided a long-winded, complicated, technically rigorous answer, the staffer was obviously disappointed. Evidently, he was looking for something simple and clear-cut.  I then asked, ever so diplomatically, to provide a brief written answer that could be published in the EPA internal blog.  What follows is an edited version of what was submitted.

Very young children have a habit of asking innocent, but thorny questions.   My grandson, however, has reached an age where innocence no longer passes for an excuse for his questions;   he knows enough now that his questions reflect the traits of a budding intellectual troublemaker.

A case in point:  here is my answer to his question about the increasingly popular term:  ecosystem health.

          “Grandpa, in school today in my science class, we talked about healthy ecosystems. My teacher says that when we are not feeling well, we go to a doctor to find out how to get healthy. If I have a sick ecosystem, she says that I should go to a scientist to find out how to make the ecosystem healthy. Dad says you are a scientist, so what is a healthy ecosystem?”

It is a good question and one that I, as a research scientist who has worked on such issues for over 40 years, should be able to answer with ease.

This seemingly straightforward question, however, does not have a simple answer. Further, the answer requires a clear understanding of the proper role of science in a democracy.

First, how is a person to recognize a healthy ecosystem?  Many might identify the healthiest ecosystems as those that are pristine. But what is the pristine state of an ecosystem? Is it the condition of North America prior to alterations caused by European immigrants, say 1491?  Or perhaps it is the condition of the land sometime well after the arrival of immigrants who came by way of the Bering land bridge, say 1,000 years ago? Or maybe it is the state of North America prior to the arrival of any humans, say more than 15,000 years ago?

Ultimately it is a policy decision that will specify the desired state of an ecosystem. It is a choice, a preference, a goal.

Scientists can provide options, alternatives, and possibilities, but ultimately in a democracy, it is society that chooses from among the possible goals.

For example, a malarial-infested swamp in its natural state could be defined as a healthy ecosystem, as could the same land converted to an intensively managed rice paddy.  Neither the swamp nor the rice paddy can be seen as a “healthy” ecosystem except through the lens of a person’s values or policy goals.

Once the desired state of an ecosystem is specified by someone, or by society overall through laws and regulation, scientists can determine how close we are to achieving that goal. They might even offer some approaches that might better achieve the goal.  Ultimately, though, it is society that defines the goal, not scientists. One person’s sick ecosystem is another person’s healthy ecosystem.

So, the answer to my grandson’s provocative question is that human health is not an appropriate metaphor for ecosystem health.  There is no inherently “healthy” state of ecosystems except when viewed from the perspective of societal values.

Pristine ecosystems (e.g., wilderness watersheds, Antarctica, uninhabited tundra) are certainly very different than highly altered ecosystems (e.g., farms, city parks, harbors) but neither a pristine ecosystem nor a highly altered ecosystem is scientifically better or worse — just different.



Robert T. Lackey

Is more and better science the key to resolving environmental policy debates?  Some scientists  — and many others without training in science — seem to think so.  The short answer, however, is that science is rarely, if ever, is the key.

But, how often have you heard this lament from scientists:

            “If we just had better science, or at least more science, more data, the best policy choice would be obvious and we could move on.  It is a lack of science that is the main obstacle to deciding what to do.”

This lament, or permutations of it, is often followed by a proposed course of action:

            “Fund us and we’ll provide you with the necessary scientific information to make for an easy decision!”

I know.  I’ve followed this script many times in the never-ending search for research funding.   It is the reality for those of us employed in the highly competitive world of research and consulting.

Here’s my confession.  When I was working as a research scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, part of my job was to convince the EPA regulatory people (i.e., the folks with the money) that their main problem was really a lack of scientific information.  You know the marketing pitch:  send money, you’ll buy more science, and more science will solve your policy-making problem.

To prosper these days, a research scientist must play this game and play it well.  More money means you can hire additional staff, buy better equipment, publish more papers, and ascend the scientific pecking order.

But the fact is that science rarely drives policy debates, at least not policy debates that people care much about.

Let me illustrate with an example of how more science muddles a policy debate.  It is an example from far away, a case study that you can analyze with detachment and comfort, but one that illustrates what has become ever so typical in ecological policy.

Think about my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.  For over three decades, there has been a highly polarized debate over what the primary purpose of the publicly owned forests should be.

Simplifying this complex policy debate down its core question:

a)   Should these public lands be managed for sustained timber production to foster economic development generally, and for rural communities, specifically?


 b)   Should these public lands be preserved for non-consumptive uses such as recreation and species protection that primarily benefit urbanites?

But what have you read about?  About the plight of the northern spotted owl, right?  An at-risk species that almost no one, even most enviros, cared much about prior to its selection as the species of choice to trigger the Endangered Species Act.

Even more bizarre, the major political debate over choosing between two competing, and legitimate, policy goals collapsed into endless court cases revolving around the most esoteric life history details of this obscure species.

No wonder much of the public has become cynical about the political process — and the role of science.

Some policy advocates admit, at least in private, that selecting a charismatic species was a tactic to awaken the substantial legal power of the Endangered Species Act.  In short, the “scientific facts” about spotted owls became a legal weapon, a surrogate, used by advocates to achieve their primary policy goal:  to stop logging on public forests.

Conversely, other policy advocates, especially those promoting logging to support rural communities economically and meet domestic demand for lumber and paper, pitched science in a way that supported their policy goal:  to allow logging on public forests.

Great for policy advocates, they are free to use whatever tactics or tools work in policy debates, but for the credibility of scientists in the eyes of the public, it was very costly.

If through some miracle, we could miraculously and instantly learn everything possible about spotted owls, the policy debate would continue because science has simply become a weapon in the larger policy war.

It is values that largely drive policy choices, not science.  Yes, science is important in assessing the consequences of each of the available policy options, but it is people’s values that drive which option is preferred.  Similarly, policy “win-win” only exists in the sham arguments pitched in election-year political campaigns.  Every policy choice involves winners — and losers.  There are no free lunches;  an inconvenient truth for sure for scientists, the public, and decision-makers.