The recent hubbub over a forestry study at Oregon State University illustrates the realities and pitfalls academic researchers everywhere face. It also offers lessons that researchers - and those agencies and groups that fund their work - would do well to learn in today's highly politicized atmosphere.
No one denies the value independent research offers to agriculture and the timber industry. Most agricultural research takes place without generating so much as a peep of publicity or protest. Those studies help farmers and ranchers find new cultivars, fight diseases and find ways to improve their efficiency.
Once in a while, a study of a hot-button issue comes along that generates a great deal of public controversy. When that happens, far more heat is generated than light.
One such study was recently published in the journal "Science." In it, Dan Donato, an OSU graduate student, and other scientists studied post-salvage logging in southwestern Oregon, where a wildfire had devastated a huge portion of the forest.
The short-term study concluded that salvage logging after a wildfire appears to slow forest regrowth by killing naturally regenerated seedlings and increasing the amount of fuel on the ground to feed more fires. The findings were published as a one-page item after two years of a three-year study. The conclusion of the study, funded by a $307,000 Bureau of Land Management grant, is contrary to the opinion of many forest managers that salvage logging actually aids regeneration.
In publishing the study, the journal's editors added a reference to pending legislation in supplemental material posted online. Donald Kennedy, the journal's editor-in-chief, told the Associated Press the OSU researchers had asked them to remove the statement, which was in violation of the grant's provision that the funds can't be used to lobby Congress.
Another violation apparently occurred when no BLM scientist was directly consulted before the research was published, according to the BLM.
However, the BLM's project inspector did meet with the OSU researchers in December. At that time they told him the results of the study that would be published. OSU has apologized for the misunderstandings.
All of which would most likely have gone unnoticed by the public had BLM not decided to freeze the study's funding. That set off a series of events that made BLM appear to be trying to tailor research so it reaches the right conclusions.
That, in turn, transformed the issue into one of academic freedom, which to researchers is akin to motherhood and apple pie. And that gave BLM a big, fat black eye, even though the agency reversed its decision.
The BLM should have thought twice before freezing funding for the research. What transpired is a textbook example of how a government agency can make itself look bad even when it is in the right for questioning whether contract terms are being met.
If we are to trust science as a means of determining how best to manage resources, grow crops and care for livestock, we have to know it is based on a fair and accurate reading of the facts, no more and no less.
As it stands, Congress is getting into the act of this melodrama that could accurately be titled, "Much Ado About Not Much." A congressional hearing is scheduled for later this month to rehash the facts of the case and how it was handled.
Or, in this case, mishandled.