Alaska editorial: Palin administration ignores bear science

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

G ov. Sarah Palin won office with the promise of running an open and transparent government. But when it comes to the state's work on the polar bear conservation controversy, her administration is closed and opaque.

Her administration is refusing to release the unfiltered comments that state marine mammal experts made on the subject. The scientists were asked about the quality of scientific information the federal government used to list the polar bear as a threatened species.

The state's official position is that the federal government's science does not justify the listing. Gov. Palin's criticism of the science uses words like "uncertain," "unproven," "arbitrary" and "speculation." She claimed that the state's opposition to the listing is based on a "comprehensive review" of the federal science.

There's reason to suspect that the Palin administration's opinion reflects political considerations, rather than objective scientific conclusions.

The evidence came in an obscurely worded e-mail that the Palin administration released in response to a freedom of information request. The e-mail, from the state's marine mammal expert at the Department of Fish and Game, said he and two colleagues had reviewed nine new federal studies on the polar bear.

"Overall, we believe that the methods and analytical approaches used to examine the currently available information supports the primary conclusions and inferences stated in these 9 reports," the scientist wrote.

In other words, the state's scientific experts thought the federal government's science was sound.

However, in the Palin administration, the politically correct opinion is different. In Alaska politics, the politically correct stand is to resist the polar bear listing by any means necessary - even to the point of denying the obvious threat polar bears face from shrinking polar ice.

What respectable scientific basis does the state have for its claim the polar bear is not in fact threatened?

The state filed scientific-sounding comments criticizing some aspects of the federal studies. Unlike the federal government, however, the state did not expose its "science" to peer review.

The state's comments, signed by political appointees, supposedly relied on the work of a few state scientists. But what exactly did those state scientists say?

The Palin administration doesn't want Alaskans to know. Confronted with that freedom of information request, filed by UAA professor Rick Steiner, the Palin administration withheld the scientists' comments, except for the one noted above.

Why?

The Palin administration invoked an often-overused exemption in the state public records act. What the state scientists said is "pre-decisional" information. Releasing it would compromise the deliberative process used to make state decisions.

In other words, it's more important to preserve the prerogative of politicians who make decisions than it is to disclose the unfiltered scientific comment on polar bears for Alaskans to see.

Sound science is done in the open, with a full airing of results and analysis. Exposed to the light and the judgment of peers and skeptics, sound science will prevail.

Gov. Palin took a much more open approach with her work on the TransCanada gas line proposal. The state has a Web site chock full of pre-decisional analysis done by independent consultants.

If the Palin administration wants credibility in the polar bear debate, if Gov. Palin wants credit for running an open and transparent government, she should intervene and let Alaskans hear or see what state scientists had to say - before the politicians got involved.



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