The Bush administration has a habit of inserting political commissars into scientific agencies to limit deviations from the Party Line. One of the most notable examples was George Deutsch, the college drop-out who was appointed to censor statements by NASA scientists and who had the word “theory” inserted after every occurrence of “Big Bang” on NASA’s website. Deutsch resigned after it was revealed that he had never completed the B.A. in journalism that he claimed on his NASA resume.
While Deutsch’s role appears to have been that of a propaganda officer, other Bush political commissars have more of a role in shaping policy. A recent example is that of Julie MacDonald, a civil engineer with an apparent distaste for science who was deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Interior. Last October Julie Eilperin of the Washington Post reported:
A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has rejected staff scientists’ recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six times in the past three years, documents show.
In addition, staff complaints that their scientific findings were frequently overruled or disparaged at the behest of landowners or industry have led the agency’s inspector general to look into the role of Julie MacDonald, who has been deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks since 2004, in decisions on protecting endangered species.
While MacDonald’s contempt for the work of government scientists is clear, it’s unclear from the article whether she was unable to understand the science, or whether the actions were part of an act designed to undermine the scientists.
“A lot of times when I first read a document I think, ‘This is a joke, this is just not right.’ So I’ll ask questions,” said MacDonald, a civil engineer by training who worked at the California Resources Agency before joining the Interior Department in 2002.
Hundreds of pages of records, obtained by environmental groups through the Freedom of Information Act, chronicle the long-running battle between MacDonald and Fish and Wildlife Service employees over decisions whether to safeguard plants and animals from oil and gas drilling, power lines, and real estate development, spiced by her mocking comments on their work and their frequently expressed resentment. (Emphasis added).
It’s more telling when you see her comments in context:
In several instances, MacDonald wrote sarcastic comments in the margins of the documents, questioning why scientists were portraying a species’ condition as so bleak. When scientists raised the possibility that a proposed road might degrade the greater sage grouse’s habitat, which is scattered through 11 Western states, MacDonald wrote: “Has nothing to do with sage grouse. This belongs in a treatise on ‘Why roads are bad’?” (Emphasis added).
The contempt for the authors of the report is palpable. Coming from a political appointee in a government agency, it’s disturbing. Coming from a civil engineer who appears to lack even the most basic understanding of biology, it’s simply offensive. My taxes pay the salary people like that? I suppose if you want to undermine an agency, you appoint incompetents devoid of people skills.
What’s more notable though is the ignorance that these comments betray. While road effects are species-specific, it’s a pretty standard idea in conservation biology. Someone who doesn’t know this has no place commenting on reports like this.
Not to surprisingly, it turns out that MacDonald interfered in endangered species listings. As Devilstower reports at dKos
In this case, some decisions made by Julie A. MacDonald, who Bush made deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will be reviewed because (say it with me now) she altered the scientific data to fit administration policy. That’s good news for the white-tailed prairie dog, arroyo toad, and other species involved in those cases, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.
A total of eight decisions regarding endangered species rulings are being reviewed as a result of MacDonald’s “inappropriate” influence on the decisions. These rulings apply to a total of 18 species.