Alaska policy forces two scientists off beluga recovery team

The Anchorage Daily NewsJune 6, 2011 

A Parnell administration rule that requires state scientists to adhere to official policy and not the principles of independent science when they work outside their agencies continues to fuel debate more than a month after two biologists were removed from a federal beluga whale recovery team.

The state biologists were kicked off the beluga panel because the rule compromised the scientific integrity of the team, federal officials said.

"The situation is unfortunate," said Leslie Cornick, an associate professor of marine biology and policy at Alaska Pacific University. "What you have is the politicians silencing their state-employed biologists, and the politicians, who don't know anything about interpreting scientific data, are interpreting scientific data in a way that fits their agenda."

The policy could have the long-term effect of chilling participation of state scientists in independent research and journal activity that scientists in academia have long enjoyed, said Cornick, who said she was speaking for herself and not her university.

Doug Vincent-Lang, the acting deputy commissioner of Fish and Game and an advocate of the new state rule, said in a recent interview that scientists are encouraged to engage in vigorous debate inside their agencies, but that once a position is established, the state has a right to demand adherence to it.

On April 25, as the issue simmered for months, the top official of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska decided the state gag rule on its scientists was in direct conflict with federal policy.

James Balsiger, the Juneau-based NMFS regional administrator, said he had no choice but to remove two Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, Bob Small and Mark Willette, from the scientific panel of the Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery team, even though both are experts in their fields.

The 13-member panel of unpaid volunteers, now down to 11, is in the middle of drafting a plan designed to get Cook Inlet beluga whales, thought to number about 350, off the endangered species list. The panel is to determine how many belugas represent a sustainable population -- when victory can be declared -- and figure out a strategy to get there. The plan, due in rough form in about a year, would be subject to public comment and final approval by federal officials.

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