Robert T. Lackey

Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

Oregon State University

Corvallis, Oregon  97331



Seminar Summary: The overall public policy goal of restoring Pacific salmon wild runs in the Columbia River Basin appears to enjoy widespread public support.  Billions of dollars have failed to reverse the long-term, overall decline.  To answer the question of whether the effort to rebuild wild runs through the release of hatchery-produced salmon, I asked 58 well-known salmon scientists to predict (anonymously) how the overall abundance of Columbia River Basin salmon (including steelhead) would change after 20 years if fishing was stopped and hatcheries were closed.  About 83% predicted that current (wild plus hatchery) salmon abundance (overall Columbia Basin run) would decline without hatchery stocking and fishing.  Most surveyed experts predicted that stopping fishing and closing hatcheries would not greatly change the current overall wild-only abundance in the Basin.  Based on these results, salmon fishing and hatchery additions are not currently believed to be among the major drivers of the low abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin.  The current overall abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin (roughly 3-5% of pre-1850s levels) is within the expected range, given the amount and availability of high-quality salmon habitat, past and current ecological changes, and overarching trends in oceanic and climate conditions.  Thus, stopping fishing and closing hatcheries likely will not drastically change the current wild salmon abundance in the Basin — and it may well drive wild runs even lower, according to many experts.

*Presented at a Pacific Salmon Commission (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) seminar on November 29, 2023.


Click Here for the Seminar Link


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

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.