Science left smoldering

Someone please give me a good reason that Oregon State University’s Forestry School should be supported in part by tax revenue from logging operations.

For that matter, someone give me a reason why any institution of higher education should tolerate ?” much less solicit ?” corporate or government meddling.

A recent spate of articles has drawn attention to the ludicrous intrusion of partisan politics into the state university system ?” an intrusion that has, in all likelihood, been occurring for many years, the most recent fuss merely being a particularly shocking exemplar of the root problem.

Last month, an OSU graduate student named Dan Donato, in cooperation with senior faculty in the OSU School of Forestry, submitted research to the prestigious journal Science, which suggested a politically-unpopular course of treatment for recently burned forests: leave them alone.

According to the Donato study, “Postfire logging can be counterproductive to the goals of forest regeneration and fuel reduction.”

This research finding is in direct opposition to the majority of forest-fire related research that has come out of the College of Forestry in recent years. The most staunch opposition for the new study has been an OSU professor named John Sessions, who has been working with a group of other forestry professors to delay the publication of the research (an effort which has failed), then pressuring the science board and calling them on the carpet for the “failure” of their peer-review system.

Is anyone else seeing how ludicrous this is?

More recently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management put a hold on the last one-third of a three-part, three-year, $307,000 Fire Research grant given to the OSU College of Forestry, pulling roughly $97,000 of funding out from under Donato and his senior author, Beverly Law. The BLM’s justification for this funding freeze was that an online preview of the research published in Science happened to carry a reference to a House bill on forest practices, and that due to this, the authors (and Science editorial board) were therefore guilty of trying to influence public policy.

The Science editorial board, for its part, admitted that the reference was supposed to have been pulled prior to publication as per the author’s request, and the failure to do so was their goof.

So why should we at PSU care about any of this?

Well, it should be pretty clear that any College of Whatever, anywhere, that receives 10 percent of its funding from related-industry taxes doesn’t have a rhetorical leg to stand on when it pleads proper scientific objectivity. Furthermore, the BLM’s recent stunt should intimidate anyone working on scientific research that is in any way connected to public policy, or supported by government grants.

“[The BLM’s decision] says, ‘If we don’t like what you’re saying, we’ll cut off your money’,” according to Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington faculty and forest researcher. Certainly we can agree that in a democratic society, government or industry manipulation of research funding, based on research findings, pollutes the whole process of objective scientific inquiry.

The actual veracity of Donato’s work ?” that is, whether or not forest fires should be followed by aggressive logging and replanting, or just left alone ?” is beside the point. The issue here is that university professors, and later a government agency, have actually gone to great lengths to block the publication of research that does not agree with their agendas. Further, these efforts denote an attempt to violate student autonomy. We have to remember that Donato is not just another scientist in a lab ?” he is a grad student at OSU’s Forestry School, still trying to learn and do his best to conduct solid, original research.

These efforts will, if successful, not only adulterate the quality and even the possibility of open and honest scholarly discourse, but dilute the very search for the truth. These individuals and organizations are seeking to reframe both public and scholarly discourse in the name of partisan politics, and ultimately, for money. Protestations of legitimate and innocent contentions aside ?” “your peer review process is at fault,” “his research leapt to improper conclusions,” “your online preview could have swayed policymakers” ?” this whole episode smacks of partisan politics and vested financial interests.

This issue goes beyond Intel, the state’s largest employer, recruiting from and donating heavily to the PSU Computer Science and Engineering departments. This goes beyond the fact that PSU, receiving only 16 percent of its total funding from state sources, should not really be called a “state” school. These actions by the BLM and a particular group of professors at OSU may usher in a whole new era of corporation and government attempts at manipulation of the “free market of ideas.”

Here’s hoping that Donato, Law and Science stand firm. Here’s hoping that our Senators and Congressmen, like Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat who has called for an inquiry into the funding suspension, will continue to fight for scientific freedom for the academic community. Here’s hoping that the Oregon state legislature realizes that supporting a state college with tax dollars generated by its related industry is generally a bad idea, and can think of some better ways both to allocate those tax dollars, and fund specialized state colleges.