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Scientists lead a double life as scientist and citizen. The scientist seeks objectivity so as to not compromise interpretation of the results of their studies. The citizen is filled with passions and aversions that necessarily introduce subjectivity when navigating the complexity of the world. Biologists are scientists and citizens of local and national communities; correspondingly, biologists versed in the complexity of nature and the uncertainty of science should voice their informed opinions. The scientist and citizen require distinction, nonetheless. Once the results of the research are subjected to rigorous peer review so that the objectivity of science is assured and the inescapable uncertainty emphasized, then scientists ‘… can shift gears and tell us (the public) the meaning they themselves find in those results, as well as the actions that they would like to see adopted in response to their findings’ (Limerick & Puska, 2003, p. 25). Separating science and advocacy is crucial and should be complete. Advocacy sometimes surfaces in the pages of peer-review science journals in a scientific report, a practice that should be discouraged. Plenty of avenues for advocacy exist, including the scientific journals that publish scientific reports, in sections clearly identifiable as advocacy, opinion, point of view, perspective and the like.

Rob Ramey is a self-proclaimed advocate for changing the Endangered Species Act (see New York Times, 27 June 2004). Like Governor Bill Owens of Colorado who believes in ‘… a natural order, which means that some species will always be sublimated1 while other species are on the ascendant’, Ramey advocated that we should not waste our conservation resources on the ‘little twigs’ (referring to the tree of life) at the expense of the ‘big branches’. ‘We just have to understand that we may have to lose some of the little twigs out there. That means that some groups will lose their ESA cash cows, but it's for the long-term good’ (Westword, 1/20/05). In the first paragraph of the Animal Conservation paper where Ramey sets the stage for the research, his advocacy continues: ‘If defensible data are lacking and a protected organism is not distinguishable with a high degree of certainty from neighbouring, non-threatened relatives, considerable financial and logistical conservation effort may be misallocated at the expense of other endangered organisms.’ It appears that the purpose of the Ramey et al. (2005) paper is to make the task of maintaining biological diversity less expensive. We are led to believe that the Endangered Species listing of meadow jumping mouse subspecies was a costly error demanding correction. This is hardly science; nonetheless, this brand of advocacy masquerading as science has its supporters. The Governor's Office of the State of Wyoming, the organization Coloradan's for Water Conservation and Development (not an environmental group), The Colorado Association of Home Builders, the Republican Senator Wayne Allard and others applauded Ramey's work because it resulted in ‘… removing a costly listing that has stymied people, businesses, and government in our state’ (Senator Wayne Allard).

Ramey et al. (2005) obliterated the distinction between scientist and citizen. He has made abundantly clear that the ‘little twigs’ (what Governor Bill Owens refers to as ‘obscure creatures’) need pruning to save the ‘big branches’ (e.g. condors and bighorn sheep). To do so, science was corrupted. For example, in the absence of data, Ramey et al. (2005, p. 340) wrote: ‘While the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean there is evidence of absence, there do not appear to be any adaptive differences that prevent the Z. hudsonius subspecies in this study from being ecologically exchangeable. We therefore cannot reject the null hypothesis of historic or recent ecological exchangeability.’ In other words, because there are no data showing adaptive differences between subspecies, the subspecies are ecologically redundant. Such a sweeping and important biological conclusion is not legitimate without doing the difficult, time consuming and costly tests of whether related species are actually ecologically equivalent. Additionally, Ramey et al. (2005, p. 338) estimated gene flow from FST values derived from microsatellite data and concluded that the hypothesis of genetic exchangeability could not be rejected, even though estimation of gene flow using FST has been severely criticized and discredited (Whitlock & McCauley, 1999); moreover, Ramey et al. failed to note that analysis of microsatellites using FST grossly overestimates gene flow, ensuring that the null hypothesis cannot be rejected based on the criterion (Hedrick, 1999). Other examples of unsound analysis and mistaken interpretation pepper the paper (references to numerous peer reviews of Ramey's work are available at http://www.r6.fws.gov/preble/). Most notable is that Ramey et al. (2005) provided abundant evidence for recognition of Preble's meadow jumping mouse as a discrete population segment (according to the criterion in the Federal Register 1996), yet they concluded wrongly that ‘…Z. h. preblei does not appear to qualify as a distinct population…’ (p. 341). To conclude otherwise would have conflicted with their advocacy.

Worse, the peer-review process orchestrated by the journal Animal Conservation failed miserably. The glaring lack of consideration for uncertainty that accompanies biological inferences derived from molecular data and the inadequacy of the results given the limited data analysed in the paper suggest that peer reviews were hasty and incomplete, the reviewers were not sufficiently expert to judge the quality of the science, or recommendations were ignored and the manuscript sailed on to publication without editorial oversight. Whatever the case may be, such inadequate independent review threatens ‘… biodiversity and ecosystem functionality, legal integrity, allocation of public funds, the public trust, and the integrity of the environmental sciences’ (Smallwood, Beyea & Morrison, 1999).

Whenever there are challenges to the status or conservation plans of Endangered Species, when there is so much at stake, the supporting science is in greater need of careful independent review than is academic science (Smallwood et al., 1999). As scientists and citizens we have to demand good science, and when the rules of science have been violated and untenable conclusions with important consequences advanced, we should demand retraction and require independent replication of the study before any action is recommended or realized.

Footnotes
  1. 1Sublimate means to express an instinctual impulse (like sexuality) into a socially more acceptable activity; I suspect he meant subjugate (i.e. to conquer).

References

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  2. References
  • Hedrick, P.W. (1999). Perspective: Highly variable genetic loci and their interpretation in evolution and conservation. Evolution 53, 313318.
  • Limerick, P.N. & Puska, C. (2003). Making the most of science in the American West: an experiment. Boulder, CO: Report from the Center of the American West.
  • Ramey, R.R. II, Liu, H.-P., Epps, C.W., Carpenter, L.M. & Wehausen, J.D. (2005). Genetic relatedness of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei) to nearby subspecies of Z. hudsonius as inferred from variation in cranial morphology, mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite DNA: implications for taxonomy and conservation. Anim. Conserv. 8, 329346.
  • Smallwood, K.S., Beyea, J. & Morrison, M.L. (1999). Using the best scientific data for Endangered Species conservation. Environ. Mgmt. 24, 421435.
  • Whitlock, M.C. & McCauley, D.E. (1999). Indirect measures of gene flow and migration: FST not equal to 1/(4Nm+1). Heredity 82, 117125.